Every band needs something, anything, to stand out from the rest. Maybe you find your niche in wild instrumentation, ethnic diversity, or just outstanding musicianship. Or you could go out on a limb, and look for something that is so off the beaten path, that it brings attention, both good and bad, to your doorstep. But while most of Calgary sits under a few feet of water, Gales Of Avalon are treading, figuratively, to keep their heads above it. It would be easy to simplify their sound, boiling it down to a blackened death metal base. But that doesn't paint the whole picture. They've found something that makes their music jump through your speakers, and blast directly into your inner ear. For better or worse, they've founding that certain something that makes them unique. What you have in front of you is a riddle, wrapped inside a mystery, trapped in confusion. And whatever you think of "When The Ravens Return," you will certainly be talking about it later.
One bone chilling growl invites the guitars and drums to rain down on you from above. But as "What Hell Have I?" moves along, it changes in many ways. The instrumental has legs, ones that will kick and stomp you into submission over and over again. But it is the vocals that will cause the most unrest among first time listeners. There is a three headed monster at the mic, with a constant identity crisis. Sure, you can easily locate the guttural growls and blackened screams. The third, though, is hard to identify; one part scream, one part off beat cackle, it is off-putting at times, especially when paired with the far stronger cousins. Unfortunately, this iteration takes the lead on "Robert's Lament," a bizarre James Hetfield gone country take on metal vocals that never quite sinks in. The true shame, though, is that it masks an otherwise stellar mix. A booming kick drum sound keys the backing instrumental, chock full of distorted guitar and wailing grooves. The breakdown, which casts that vocal line aside in favor of far more successful ones, is s strong as anything else on the album. There is a darkness to be found, especially in "These Words," through expressive guitars. They have far more success in the lead role than one would expect; due in part to the failures of the "clean" vocal.
With the mix stripped down on "Ocean Ranger," it gives the backing band a real chance to shine. The guitar leads are tight and well executed, screaming over the top of some dense, slowed down chugging segments. Not to belabor the point, but the vocals are the x factor here, with the massive growls furthering the mix, and the piratical crooning dragging them backwards. But the folksy stomp of the latter half is the biggest victory of the EP, giving you something to hang your hat on later. The true crime here is how the best efforts are almost wasted, when coated with that stale vocal line, making it difficult for the main melody of "Darkened Mirror" to ever make it through to your ears. It becomes addition by subtraction; as that piece fades and disappears, the mix becomes forceful and efficient. The dueling vocal lines, black and death, do wonders for the track, bolstering the work of the rhythm section and their low end assault. It may have taken the bulk of five tracks to arrive, but the most unique is yet to come, as "Winter Sun" takes the band in a direction that may have been too little too late. They hit a stride, a haunting one at that, minimizing their stumbles and focusing on their strengths, which lie in the area away from the microphone. the intro and outro are all the proof you need.
This album, as it stands, is a conundrum in and of itself. Gales Of Avalon have something that makes them unique, something that gives them to ability to stand out from the crowd. But that something, the mystery vocal, might also be their greatest weakness. Even in smaller doses, it would do more by doing less, and allowing the strengths of the band to shine through more brightly. But abandoning it altogether doesn't seem like a viable option at this stage in the life cycle of the band. At best, it is an acquired taste; it may take time and repeated listens to accept it's place in the hierarchy. At worst, it is a distraction from the greater good; and it may take multiple listens to truly learn how to block it out. Whichever angle you take, its impact is undeniable. But as you hit play, know that there is something much better dwelling beneath that first layer. And if you have the patience to take it all in, "When The Ravens Return" is much better than the first impression lets you see.
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