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One of the most frequently asked questions when a band releases a record that is arguably their best work, is “how are they going to surpass this?“. Many acts across not just in metal, but in music generally, have been faced with this same problem, setting themselves an incredibly lofty benchmark and having to follow it up with something that measures up to both critical and fan expectations, as well as their own as artists. This is the issue facing Finland’s …AND OCEANS, with As in Gardens, So in Tombs.
This album’s predecessor, 2020’s Cosmic World Mother, is arguably their strongest record, and an undeniable highlight of the pandemic era, having the sort of musicality and tight production that many albums released in the same time frame lacked. Luckily, with close to 30 years worth of song-writing experience to their name, and boasting some of the most talented musicians from Finland’s extreme metal scene within their ranks, the sextet have managed to clear this daunting hurdle with seeming ease, further cementing their legacy as one of Finland’s, and the world’s, premier symphonic black metal acts.
The album’s opening title track is a huge, grandiose offering built around soaring keyboards, intricate drums, sharp, melodic guitars and acerbic vocals – an offering that is both catchy and aggressive. The electronic bridge acts as a great nod to the band’s mid-era sound, before returning to heady symphonics, covering a lot of ground musically in a short space of time. The Collector And His Construct follows a similar formula, but showcases a darker, more sinister edge and utilises the imaginative guitar work prominently and to great effect.
Within Fire And Crystal is driven by punchy, dancing keys, with the denser, more rhythmic style of the rest of the music allowing these and the vocals to rise to the fore, with a few quick guitar hooks complementing both to craft a cavernous, domineering sound. Carried On Lead Wings adopts angular riffs, thunderous beats and visceral vocal deliveries, pushing the music into still heavier territories without ever fully stripping away the atmosphere for a vitriolic and energetic take on the band’s style.
Likt Törnen Genom Kött places the drums and guitar at the heart of the music, with relatively minimal, airy keyboard passages serving to break up this fairly belligerent number. The vocals have a similarly bestial side, which contributes even more venom to what is arguably the album’s fiercest track. Cloud Heads lurches back towards a keyboard driven sound, but does a magnificent job of tying this to the faster, rabid guitars that have characterised the previous two tracks, marrying the best ingredients of the previous five songs together and striking a balance between them.
Wine Into Water, a short but effective song, continues this brilliant interweaving of the keyboards with traditional, guitar-centric black metal, ebbing and flowing expertly between harsher and more ethereal sections to make for a thoroughly engrossing and memorable experience. Inverse Magnification Matrix turns towards the meatier, rhythmic sound of a track like Within Fire And Crystal, with a brief ambient interlude being the only reprieve, after which the music takes on a dizzying and grand sound which caps off this offering fantastically.
The Earth Canvas mirrors these gargantuan closing moments, peppering in polished melodicism from the guitars for a lighter sound than what immediately preceded it, with the vocal alone providing the bulk of the intensity. It captures an angelic side to the band without sacrificing the underlying grit. Ambivalent God, the album’s monolithic and dramatic closer, takes a longer form approach to the musical framework laid down on the last nine tracks, and manages to coalesce the best components into one place, from the intricate drums and arid vocals to its caustic guitar work and delicate, virtuosic keyboards touches. It’s a great, slow-burning affair that brings the album to an epic head.
To answer the question posed at the start of this review, yes, …AND OCEANS have not only succeeded in surpassing the majesty of Cosmic World Mother, they’ve created their most impressive record to date. Right from the outset, it’s got the sort of technical prowess and imaginative, dexterous song-writing and musicianship that have made classic albums like Anthems To The Welkin At Dusk stand the test of time; coupling excellent, bombastic keyboards and melodic hooks with the urgent pace of the drums and vocals that soar and sear with equal measure, the mix allows all of the myriad elements on offer to shine rather than just one or two, as is often the case with many modern acts. As In Gardens, So In Tombs is very likely going to go on to be regarded as one of modern symphonic black metal’s stand out classics in years to come, and even now, upon its initial release, it certainly already feels like it is.
As In Gardens, So In Tombs is out now via Season Of Mist.
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