Melodeath is like the marijuana of the extreme metal world – not because it is habit forming or likely to make listeners destroy a pizza, but because it is more often than not the gateway genre to a broader musical realm. Be’lakor’s fourth album, Vessels , is typical of this: easy to listen to, but always hinting at something more symphonic, more brutal, more atmospheric… or just more. Historically, this reserve seems typical of Be’lakor : it’s rare for any band (sub-genre or otherwise) in the ‘death’ spectrum to show restraint, but this Australian outfit effortlessly indulge their compositions with acres of breathing space and a great balance between soft acoustic passages and roaring, blasting assaults.
Despite the obvious similarities and influences, Vessels is not just another Insomnium or At The Gates clone album: not only is Be’lakor’s overall sound quite removed from the Scandinavian standard , tending towards a more hard rock guitar tone (especially noticeable on lead work – ‘Smoke of Many Fires’ is a great example of this) but the entire compositional approach is far more progressive than that followed by the old guard. Take, for instance, the eleven-and-a-half minute opus that is ‘Withering Strands’ that combines several unique melodies into one cohesive whole. One other area where Be’lakor manage to avoid melodeath clichés is in the vocals. A common trick employed to create dynamism within an arrangement is the introduction of clean or spoken vocal passages: on Vessels, George Kosmas’ growl remains a constant within the compositional arsenal.
My only complaint is that the ‘acoustic theme blending into fresh distorted attack’ idiom becomes overplayed – especially as it is a trope employed to some degree across the majority of Vessels. The prominence of keys over guitars in this methodology is thus a welcome change in the introduction to ‘Roots to Sever’. The process is reversed, also to good effect, on ‘Grasping Light’ where massive drums and chugging guitars introduce the signature melody and acoustic elements follow later. The technical melodic lead towards the end of each stanza drives this track, making this a very Amon Amarth-esque, warlike anthem.
The standout moment on the album is the instrumental ‘A Thread Dissolves’. Not so much from a musical point of view, but from a textural one: the hanging chord in the intro, the muttered, barely audible vocals, the chord structure that borders on dissonance… None of these translates logically into a clear, enjoyable piece of music, but the incongruity of the track makes for an excellent counterpoint to the careful attention paid to arrangement and composition on the rest of the album. Note that production hasn’t been placed amongst the elements receiving careful attention – while most melodeath opts for crystal clear studio reproduction, Vessels comes across as slightly rough around the edges. Keys are often entirely lost in the mix (except on ‘Smoke of Many Fires’ where the balance is spot on); guitars have a bit too much reverb going on and the drum tone varies from track to track. All these are forgivable and even to be encouraged in an age of overproduced music, but on the last point I have to express my disappointment. Newcomer Elliott Sansom’s drumming is expressive and wonderfully controlled – thereby reinforcing that unique restraint typical of Be’lakor that I highlighted earlier – and deserves better treatment in post-production.
After multiple plays, what has become clear with Vessels is that it can’t be listened to just once. At first, it was a struggle to focus on it enough to string two review sentences together: the whole faded into the background and it was close to being consigned to the ‘background noise’ heap. Returning to the fray, however, always yielded fresh insights and, while Vessels can still easily slot into a more ambient playlist, paying it the attention it deserves showcases sensitive composition, excellent musicianship and an involved lyric-driven storyline that sums up a massive cosmic ‘circle of life’ concept into eight tracks.
1. Broken Amp recently discussed the album on their ‘Smash the Mic’ Podcast, which can be listened to at http://brokenamp.com/episode-021-cock-a-doodle-djent/
2. Their first album, 2007’s The Frail Tide already showed this tendency. The opening track, ‘Neither Shape Nor Shadow’ amply displays a downtempo take on melodeath, with multiple changes of pace where ambient interludes contrast sharply with fast, technical riffing – often as twin-guitar harmonies.
3. The ‘buzzsaw’ sound of the ever-popular Boss HM-2 distortion pedal – something that has since become something of a heavy metal cliché – is often cited as being a hallmark of Swedish death metal, melodic or otherwise.