Monday, April 29, 2013

Anciients - Heart Of Oak (2013)

With so many major labels, independent labels, imprints labels, and web labels, it is damn near impossible to keep track of all of the signings, releases, and movement in the modern age. But there are always a few that you watch more closely than others, hoping to find something you may have missed. And while the "major" metal labels, like Nuclear Blast, Metal Blade, and Century Media have done wonders for our catalogs and collections, it is Season of Mist that have provided some of the biggest surprises. When they announced the signing of Vancouver based quartet Anciients in late 2012, it warranted further investigation. Described as "forging together smoldering apocalyptic riffs, classic hard rock influences and unforgettable vocal melodies," it was no wonder why they had been given the opportunity to share the stage with major acts from Pig Destroyer to 3 Inches Of Blood. With the release of their debut album, "Heart Of Oak," we finally get to hear what caught the ear of a label based thousands of miles away.

With a somewhat airy opening, there is an immediate contrast of styles on "Raise The Sun;" The clean riffs and echoing bass strings set the mood, backed soon thereafter by an explosive set of drums and winding distorted guitars. As the first shot fired, it becomes the framework for the album to come, embodying a multitude of styles and sonic textures that return time and again. Most notably, the ever shifting vocals become a focal point throughout. For every clean passage, there is one of grit and darker substance. You find yourself immediately drawn in, and thanks to followups like "Overthrone," constantly immersed in the music itself. While classifying a musical endeavor as "daring" may seem out of bounds, it works here, with the band bucking the structural confines of modern metal and meandering through guitar passages at will. There are clear influences on display here, but none that cloud the unique vision of the track. Musicianship is key, with the dynamic vocal shifts forming the icing on the proverbial cake. It is "Falling In Line," however, that provides the first glimpse of pure progressive elements, both in form and function. With each wailing guitar riff and flowing bass line, you find more to dissect and repeat. Clocking in at a massive eight minutes, you would be hard pressed to find a single second wasted or contrived. A combination of surgically precise solo work and staggeringly powerful rhythm work, the track is a testament to the writing process.

But "The Longest River" is exactly that; at over nine minutes, this is the epic the album deserves, and the one it needs right now. Everything falls into place so precisely, so delicately, that it stands to wonder how they managed to fit so much into such a tight space. One part prog rock, one part stoner metal, and two parts heavy handed sonic assault, you are treated to something completely bombastic and wholly unique. With each crashing cymbal and booming kick drum, you get one more reason to let your head move to the beat; each flowing melody coaxes a nod of approval. Even more impressive, though, is the pairing of such a massive undertaking with a beautifully crafted acoustic interlude, like the minute long "One Foot In The Light." Classical in construction and folksy in delivery, it is a track that, while short, will certainly garner some interest. And bookending the experience, the booming "Giants" allows the thundering low end to shine brightly through the mix. It is here that the band finds a breathtaking balance in sound and fury, one that is elevated by a mixing and mastering job for the ages. The way the layers are put together works well, letting them all stand side by side rather than on top of one another, and results in something far bigger than you would otherwise get.

It is hard to call the opening to "Faith and Oath" a work of beauty, but in the scale of the greater album, it is exactly that. What you have, seven songs into this disc is the evolution of sound yet again. In those first fleeting seconds, you have pure black metal riffs, high speed and high reward. This is the same band, but doing something outside of the proverbial box the first few songs may have built around them. You get a taste of death metal vocals, with dense growls partnered with darting guitar work. For as much intensity as is engrained into the music, there is always a touch of class and style oozing through. Whether it is the bluesy solo that ends this track, or the swaying bass line that inhabits "Flood And Fire," there is always more at play than the norm. This last trio of songs shows a dynamic musicianship element, with more solo work, more melodic infusion, and more of the "how did they pull this off" kind of talent. It remains a viable question, wondering how they balanced this many moving parts without a trip or stumble. And when the sound of a pained scream gives way to the horn of a train, you can be sure you have wandered into unfamiliar territory. if this were to fall anywhere else on the album, "For Lisa" would be a headscratcher. but as a finale, it stands alone. It defies description, and deserves to be heard a thousand times over.

While running the risk of packing too many cliches into one closing paragraph, sometimes it is safer to be who you are, rather than trying to be something you aren't. Luckily, the four beings that make up Anciients are exactly what their music paints them to be: eclectic, creative, and talented. Somewhere between the first and last notes of the album, they take you on a wild ride down the musical rabbit hole. They aren't falling, mind you; this is a clearly orchestrated and organized effort to go far and wide in the metal spectrum, touching on so many different styles and sounds without ever sounding forced or crass. How they manage to make all of this work is anybodies guess. On paper, this mix of contrasting styles may seem like a trainwreck waiting to happen. But in reality, it is a marvel of modern ingenuity and design. At the end of the day, it is what it is, you are what you are, and the truth of the matter is you gotta kill 'em and let God sort 'em out. But all bullshit aside, "Heart of Oak" is a win, through and through.


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