Review: The Clearing Path — Watershed Between Firmament and the Realm of Hyperborea

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IT’S HAPPENING AGAIN!

AAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAH!

Why am I yelling? What am I yelling about?

I am yelling about hardcore-inflected black metal bands unexpectedly transforming into dissonant-progressive-death-inflected black metal bands. No, I am not yelling with outrage or disgust. I am yelling with equal parts excitement and perplexity. I like what is happening; it pleases me–erotically. And yet I don’t really understand what is happening, what it means or if I am only imagining things. Because, just one year ago, if you’d told me that some hardcore-inflected black metal bands I like were going to morph into dissonant-progressive-death-inflected black metal bands out of the blue, I would have scoffed and poised inwardly for maximum disappointment.

Earlier this year, Texan post-flavored black metal band Haunter surprised the shit out of me by releasing two splits which completely foregrounded the dissonantly deathy aspects of their sound–which I hadn’t ever really noticed before. The songs on those splits revealed a young band pushing themselves both technically and compositionally; while the production remained as flabbergastingly raw as ever, the musicianship (the guitar work especially) had advanced and the song structures had exploded with complexity.

And now, on a mouthful of a new album, Watershed Between Firmament and the Realm of Hyperborea, Italian one-man post-flavored black metal band The Clearing Path has pulled pretty much the exact same trick. What a bizarre fucking coincidence.

Happily, that is not to say that The Clearing Path and Haunter now sound identical. Just that they’re operating on adjacent wavelengths. It’s a wavelength that becomes apparent from the very first notes of Watershed‘s opening track, “Ankhtkheperura in Thee”. (What?) After an extremely short crescendo of…some kind of sound…the song vomits ferociously forth in a thick spray of warped fretwork and chunky drum patterns. The only thing recognizably black about the metal here is that high-pitched and slightly compressed-sounding shriek that soars over everything. And while blackened screams do the lion’s share of the vocal work across the album, low and earthy growls appear now and then to kick everything into full blown dissonant death mode.

Throughout all the head-spinning technical acrobatics and the voluptuous barbarity, Watershed maintains a beguiling atmosphere of spiritual euphoria. While most works of this general nature are fueled by dark emotions (current Haunter, for instance), this one never really feels that dark. Why not? Firstly, the keyboards: While synths never leap to the melodic foreground, etherial strings and choirs are a near-constant-yet-unobtrusive presence within all four tracks. Secondly, the clean vocals: Gabriele Gramaglia takes a chanting approach to singing which evokes reverence and exultation. Thirdly, Gramaglia’s choice of chords: I remember about as much Music Theory as I do Spanish, but it sounds to me like Gramaglia is constantly juxtaposing brighter major chords with inarticulate dissonance to create an expansive and vertiginous sound–an aural push and pull between light and dark. On that note, some of the guitar sounds coming out of this thing are downright mysterious. I know less about the guitar than I do about Music Theory or Spanish, but I have a sneaking suspicion that Gramaglia has peppered in some baritone guitar. On its own, the baritone guitar has the tendency to sound like some strange device meant to produce only flatulence; when blended with traditional guitars, the result can be absolutely beautiful in a sort of crusty, crunchy, disgusting way (I first heard baritone guitar blended to great effect on Virus‘s The Black Flux–which you should also check out if you like things that don’t suck). So while I am neither certain that Watershed contains baritone guitar nor qualified to make that distinction, I’m gonna climb out on a limb and just say…maybe?

On the whole, Watershed Between Firmament and the Realm of Hyperborea is a complicated and gorgeous album, and one that is stunningly unique. My only complaint is that the final track–an instrumental–is a bit repetitive; conceptually, it succeeds at closing out this journey of otherworldly wonderment in a sort of rapturous trance, and yet I always find myself impatient for it to be over. Oh, yeah, and the programmed drums are a slight disappointment–but when they’re programmed this well, with such an ear for variety and style, even a curmudgeonly drummer like me can’t stay too mad.

So, are we witnessing the beginning of a new trend here? Or is it just a fluke? Are more black metal bands who began by lacing their styles with hardcorisms going to embrace the dissonance within? Are Cara Neir or Bosse-de-Nage going to drop albums that sound like schizoid homages to Colored Sands? Whatever the case, I’m glad that The Clearing Path has taken such liberties with genre and released something which, although I keep referring to it as dissonant death, really doesn’t sound quite like anything I’ve heard before. I remain titillated and confused–just the way I like it. In the end, perhaps the key to my arousal with this movement (okay not a movement yet, strictly speaking–fingers crossed) is simple: I’ve been getting more into dissonant death while growing just a tad bored with whatever else is going on in the post-black world.

Here, get a full–and slightly less safe for work–view of the cover.

 

Watershed Between Firmament and the Realm of Hyperborea will be released by I, Voidhanger Records on December 8, 2017. Don’t let end-of-year exhaustion stop you from snatching this thing up and devouring it like it was the first great album you heard in February.

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