Oak Pantheon – From a Whisper (Broken Limbs Recordings, 25 September 2012)
Winter can be pretty stressful at times: for someone who has to commute long distances on a daily basis, wondering how long traffic delays might be during inclement weather, whether the worst of a storm will come earlier than predicted before arriving safely at home, which steep hill that leads home is more likely to have been plowed or salted more recently; for someone who has to walk to and from the bus stop, afraid that hiding under that snow or on that poorly-lit section of sidewalk may be a treacherous patch of ice, that maybe it will be possible to maintain balance in the event of slipping or skidding, but if not, will the result just be a few bruises again, or something much worse this time?; and for someone who lives in an old house wherein everything seems to be falling apart all at once, where it seems that the scarcely-adequate amount of heat coughed out by the ancient furnace just goes straight through poorly insulated windows.
I imagine there are lots of folks out there who can relate to many of these concerns, or at least some variation of them. But we’re going to put all of that out of mind today, because we’re coming back from a weekend full of atypically mild weather — at least here in western Pennsylvania — and even at four o’clock this morning when I left for work it was lovely outside (relatively speaking), with a pleasant, warm-ish breeze. Anyway. Having said all of that, now perhaps we can look at some of the more positive aspects of winter. For example, if you don’t have to travel anywhere (and if you’re sufficiently bundled up), walking through the woods and seeing all the snow-covered trees can be sort of pretty. Also it’s generally an appropriate environment for listening to black metal, particularly of the atmospheric or pastoral varieties. Also… nah, that’s all I can think of, just those two things.
It just so happens there’s an excellent album full of exactly the right type of sounds for this time of year — one that came out a little over three years ago and I’ve been listening to it quite a bit (especially during the wintertime) since then, and that I’ve always meant to share with you people but somehow just never got to it yet. I suppose that, as they say, there’s no time like the present…
Released digitally (and on CD via Broken Limbs Recordings, although it appears the physical version has since sold out) back in the fall of 2012, From a Whisper is the debut full-length album of Minneapolitan duo Oak Pantheon. As some of you might recall, these guys had put out an EP (The Void) back in 2011, which in my opinion ranked among the best new releases of that year — which earned it a spot in my list of the year’s top 11. In the blurb I wrote about that EP when my list was published at No Clean Singing, I noted that this band’s Minnesotan origin lends them some credibility as far as the black metal scene is concerned. Not only due to the frigid northern climate, but also the region’s famed Viking heritage would seem to imply a sort of kinship with their European counterparts.
From a Whisper definitely lives up to the expectations set by its predecessor, and then exceeds them by a country mile. Oak Pantheon (whose name could very well have been inspired by the imagined legion of deities worshipped by a Dungeons and Dragons druid character — but I’m totally just guessing here) often seem to get lumped into a category with bands like Agalloch — especially some of that band’s more atmospheric, nature-oriented works, and to be perfectly honest, the comparisons are really not far off the mark. From the beginning of opening track “Descend into Winter” through where the vocals enter (these vocals, by the way, particularly the first line, “Here– comes– the snow,” interestingly comes off as exactly midway on the spectrum between the deadpan delivery of “Here comes the rain again” and the gorgeous harmonies of “Here comes the Sun King”) the duo expends plenty of time building up the atmosphere, just like a light flurry swirling around and around until growing into a blinding white-out.
The album does include plenty of black metal references: songs like “Aspen” and “It” are fairly metallic, at least in parts, while the latter also incorporates such instruments as piano and orchestral chimes underscoring key melodic bits (the chimes drop in little accents in an almost “1812 Overture” finale kind of way); however, much of the material here is more acoustic-based. In the epic “We Will Tear Down the Gods” there are some parts that sound like they’ve been tuned or eq’d to bring out a soft, warm brightness, almost like a dulcimer or mandolin. This song and the cold, dark “Roots of Man” also make use of some ominously whispered lines, in addition to the palette of harsh metal vocals and gorgeous melodic singing parts.
It’s tough to pick out specific highlights, since this album works better when heard in its entirety: the instrumental “The Ground Beneath” with its alternating acoustic and electric parts feels like an important addition to the overall vibe; the title track, between its opening acoustic flourishes and a surprising (and SUPER brief) classic rock-style guitar solo that later appears completely out of nowhere; and finally “An Altar of Limbs” which nicely ties it all together, throwing in a little bit of all of the aforementioned styles and parts. Overall, it’s basically a perfect soundtrack for whatever this season wants to throw at you: the bitter coldness, episodes of near-violent ugliness, but overall a calming and pleasant (albeit mostly bleak) ambience.
As I mentioned before, the CD is no longer available, but both From a Whisper and The Void can be downloaded for whatever price you choose (or even for free) by doing the Bandcamp thing:
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