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Atmospheric black metal suits my temperament well. And not just one small niche of the genre, but across all its many variations: whether the atmosphere generated is that of ritual and magick (like Cult of Fire or Mephorash), nature and emptiness (heard in the music of Waldgeflüster or Windbruch) or a general state of dissatisfaction with the present expressed through a profound connection with history (such as Drudkh or Winterfylleth manage), as long as that atmosphere is authentic I am happy with the outcome. Even when those atmospheres teeter on the edge of dungeon synth formlessness (Old Castles’ connection to early Burzum, for example), I can generally find myself settling in to enjoy the result: as long as it’s dark, evocative and genuine in its expression, there really is nothing this genre can do wrong in my book.
That said, Dirges, the new album from UK-based And Now The Owls Are Smiling, made me think twice about the various classifications of this admittedly wide-ranging subsection of black metal: yes, the overall impression is fairly atmospheric, but it shares a large proportion of its mood and themes with another area – that of Depressive Suicidal Black Metal, or DSBM. In fact, if the press release for Dirges had not described the record as atmospheric black metal, I would have automatically classified it as DSBM instead: and this made me stop and think of just how much DSBM actually does belong in both worlds. Psychonaut 4, or Ghost Bath, for instance, conceivably straddle both worlds, delving deeply into both melancholia and the atmospheric consequences that imparts on the music. And Now The Owls Are Smiling follow a similar approach, with songs like “Dirge III – Darkness” giving us driving riffs, gentle acoustics and a minimal bridge section (complete with spoken – well, wailed – vocals) straight off Lifelover’s Erotik album.
The only real weak point of Dirges is the very beginning of the record: “Dirge I – Grief” kicks things off with an Agalloch-inspired clean vocal section, but it just seems too out of place. No matter how well it is performed and produced, raw wound that is the remainder of the record is just too visceral in comparison – instead of a tension-creating counterpoint, it becomes a confusing incongruity.
A clever pacing element is the short instrumental, “Dirge V – Lucidity” just past midway. Not only is this an aural breathing point, but an emotional one as well. And Now The Owls Are Smiling are fully aware of the effect their music can have on a listener and actually show enough compassion to give listeners a moment to deal with the crushing weight of sadness they are serving.
The big takeaway of Dirges, for me, is that this is a band that balance beauty and despair very effectively, but could stand to up the aggression quotient. The very real grief expressed on the album is still introspective – despite the uplifting implication of “Dirge VIII – Ascension” – but once it gets released I’m sure it will be explosive. In fact, now that they have Dirges off their chests, I’m secretly hoping for a more violent follow-up, “Purges”.
- Dirge I – Grief
- Dirge II – Rejection
- Dirge III – Darkness
- Dirge IV – Solitude
- Dirge V – Lucidity
- Dirge VI – Pointlessness
- Dirge VII – Acceptance
- Dirge VIII – Ascension
Record Label: Clobber Records
Release Date: 29 January 2021
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