Hail Spirit Noir – Pneuma (Code666, 5 March 2012)(This is the second in a series of two album reviews today, for two very different, yet equally awesome, Central Macedonian bands. To read about Descensus Ad Inferos by Erevos, head in this direction.)
Pneuma (πνεύμα, or Spirit in English) is the debut release from Thessalonian duo Hail Spirit Noir, which consists of Haris (synths) and Theoharis Liratzakis (guitar/vocals), both of whom serve in those same roles in the avant-black ensemble Transcending Bizarre?. HSN has been in existence for about two years now, and much of this time was spent composing the material found on Pneuma, which was then put to tape at Lunatech Studios (near Mount Olympus), rounded out by guest musicians Dim Douvras on bass (who also mixed the recording), Ioannis Giahoudis on drums, and Dimitris Dimitrakopoulos who provided additional vocals. Acclaimed Swedish engineer Jens Bogren then mastered the final product, and earlier this month Code666 Records made it available worldwide.
At least, that’s what happened according to the record label’s official press release (which also refers to the group’s music as “psychedelic prog black to tear your psyche apart”). Now, I’m not trying to imply that any of this information is inaccurate in any way. But having listened to this album pretty much nonstop for several days, I’ve found that what these guys have crafted is so uniquely compelling, I would have been willing to believe it if I had been told there was a bit more to the story of its inception than that.
Back in the early 1970’s, there was a bit of a fad for directors of low-budget films to use well-known bands to record a soundtrack album to accompany those films. One of the more prominent of these was Pink Floyd, who contributed songs to accompany More, La Vallée, Zabriskie Point, Tonite Let’s All Make Love in London, and The Committee; none of these movies were significant enough for anyone today to remember they ever existed, save for the fact that one of the biggest rock bands in history had created all or part of their soundtracks. The first two in this list, in fact, had their soundtracks released as albums in the Pink Floyd discography (as More and Obscured By Clouds, respectively), and while I don’t have the precise sales figures to support this statement, I can assure you that more people have bought those albums than have ever seen either of those films. This is based on a random survey of people writing this review; 100% of respondants own a copy of each soundtrack on CD, while 0% know anything whatsoever about either film. As unscientific as that may sound, the sole purpose of this data is to highlight my main point, which is that some of the songs from these soundtracks are among the best I’ve heard (Obscured By Clouds, in fact, ranks pretty high on my all-time favorite albums list), despite the fact that they were initially intended to score what was presumably a shitty and entirely forgettable motion picture.
Listening to Pneuma feels just like that. I would not have been surprised at all to learn that these six songs had actually been recorded for some Sci-Fi/horror film from 1972 — one that had been so poorly made that it never saw an official release — but that it had recently been unearthed from the vault of some obscure studio, and while the movie itself was so bad that even Mystery Science Theater 3000 wouldn’t touch it, the soundtrack associated with it was a nugget of pure gold. Well, maybe I would have been just a little skeptical about the vocals, which range from a harsh black metal rasp to a more traditional epic doom metal style, and would definitely have been far ahead of their time… but otherwise I totally would have believed it.
The strings that wash over opening track “Mountain of Horror” definitely lend to the soundtrack-music feel; this is coupled with some blackened vocals, bendy guitars, bass, and wurlitzer-sounding organ over a straight-up rock beat. This track basically seems to serve as an introduction to the concept of the rest of the album, setting up the story in both time and place, and leading into the mindset of the central character who will (spoiler alert!) eventually succumb to the dark spirit that is already threatening to take over his mental state. The experimentation through the middle of the song, featuring bass fills as well as drum fills à la Pink Floyd’s Nick Mason (specifically, I am reminded of the proto-metal “Nile Song” from the More soundtrack), lends a bit more of an avant-garde vibe, gradually descending further into the madness that is coming.
Just like a close-up shot of a film’s main character, after the title sequence featured mostly images of the scenery, “Let Your Devil Come Inside” focuses the listener’s attention much more clearly on the actual story being told here. More strings start us off, with a strummed acoustic guitar, hammond organ, and a synth lead, as well as some clean vocals. Out of nowhere, the harshly snarled refrain “Kill your mother while you’re still in her womb” is then followed by dissonant diminished chords on the organ and guitar; this seems to represent some serious cracks in our protagonist’s sanity, becoming even more confused and overwhelmed with layers of strings and xylophones. Towards the end of the song, for the first time the music truly turns metallic, consisting of what would be considered prog-metal runs, and some very fast (but not quite black metal style) drumming.
This quickly fades away, although the metal vibe briefly returns to introduce the song “Against the Curse, We Dream.” This is soon replaced, though, with a shuffle sort of beat and an organ lead. If I were scoring a movie, this is exactly what I would want to use for a fast-paced action sequence, maybe even a chase scene. Shifting to a far more mellow direction, “When All is Black” is built upon acoustic guitar and bass, while also introducing some more clean singing and a flute part. For the most part this song has a slow Bossa Nova-ish vibe to it, though on top of this they gradually add more layers: some avant-garde-sounding synth and piano interludes, and free-form basslines; again the experimental nature of the music and the song structure are reminiscent of some of the work of Pink Floyd, or perhaps King Crimson. We also are treated to some synth strings and harmony vocals, which have just a hint of film projecter-ish warble and waviness to their sounds — not to the point where it sounds bad, but just enough to enhance the sensation of listening to an older recording, giving it a feeling of warmth.
Closing out the main part of the album is the epic track “Into the Gates of Time”; this starts with more flute and acoustic guitar parts in the intro, then jumps into a classic hard rock guitar solo. These directional shifts that are found all over the album serve as a great tribute to the classic prog-rock bands; another example I would use for comparison would be Jethro Tull — although this is something I hear more in the structural elements and some of the organ parts, more so than in the occasional use of flutes, since those parts actually remind me more of Traffic or perhaps the song “Green is the Colour” from Pink Floyd’s More. Anyway, “Gates” features mostly clean singing, often in a soaring style not far removed from somebody like doom metal legends Solstice. Despite the struggles and trials faced throughout the course of this album, this song ultimately makes the outcome clear, particularly with the spoken revelation that “my demons have won.”
The song eventually fades away, replaced by sound effects of some jungle noises — mostly crickets and other bugs — that last for the final four minutes of the track. The sound is very similar to the intro and outro of Syd Barrett‘s song “Effervescing Elephant,” actually. The only thing that breaks up the monotony is a little bit of acoustic guitar strumming, repeating the minor, diminished chords from the last section of the song a couple times, which appears suddenly and then disappears again. Rather than boring the listener, this lengthy span with very little happening actually serves to build up tension and suspense — you know something is coming, but have no idea what it is, or when to expect it.
Finally, “Haile Pneuma Skoteino” (χαίρε πνεύμα σκοτεινό, Greek for “Hail Spirit Noir”) emerges. Here we enjoy some digitized pipe organ leads, over a nearly-danceable tune that one might call darkwave or electrosynthpop. The song resembles something that might have been done by The Electric Hellfire Club, which is strangely fitting, since some of the harsher vocals throughout this album also reminded me of that band’s Thomas Thorn. Vastly different from everything that has come before it, this song would be well-suited to be played over the end credits, after everything has faded to black (visually as well as metaphorically) and the audience is left reflecting over the way things turned out for our hero.
Each time I play this album, I feel like I can visualize the movie that it should have accompanied, even more clearly than when I listen to some of the other albums I mentioned that actually did accompany films. Having said that, here are a couple videos for you to enjoy:
Pneuma can be purchased from the Aural Music webshop here.