Hail Spirit Noir – Mayhem in Blue (Dark Essence Records, 28 October 2016)
Aenaon – Hypnosophy (code666, 25 November 2016)
Longtime readers should already be familiar with Hail Spirit Noir and Aenaon: both of these Greek avant-black bands’ second albums were reviewed right here about three years ago, after they were both released in early 2014. And very longtime readers may even recall that the HSN debut album was covered here when it came out back in 2012. All three of those records (all via Code666, sublabel of Italy’s Aural Music) ended up on my respective lists of those years’ top releases.
One band has since shifted to Norwegian label Dark Essence, but otherwise you’ll find that not much has changed for the bands’ third releases (each of which came out in late 2016), especially not in terms of quality — as you may have noticed, both of these once again made an appearance on my Top 16 of 2016 list. So without further ado, here are Mayhem in Blue and Hypnosophy!
Hail Spirit Noir is absolutely a band that has developed its own distinctive and instantly recognisable style. The driving rhythms and aggressively blackish tones of opening track “I Mean You Harm” leave no question as to what we’re dealing with; the song is also dotted with organ parts that make it sound like demented, evil circus music, more and more parts get added on until it ends up resembling a full band organ (aka ‘fairground organ‘). A sinister chorus of synth-flutes, another HSN hallmark, prominently features in the title track (where it’s accompanied by unison clean vocals, in the sort of storytelling bard-ish style these guys often employ) as well as “The Cannibal Tribe Came from the Sea” (where the vocals are far more gruff, semi-blackened).
It wouldn’t be fair to characterize this (or any of the band’s albums) as just ‘more of the same,’ though: they always specialize in the strange and unexpected, while at the same time incorporating elements into their songs that are inexplicably catchy and memorable. Sprawling centerpiece “Lost in Satan’s Charms” opens with a quick waltz-time part played on a tinkly barrel-hall piano, with vocals and other incidental music in a half-time feel, before shifting to more of a traditional “rock” rhythm for a while; however by the last couple minutes (out of nearly eleven altogether) it gradually returns to the initial piano figure, now with the addition of Spaghetti-western-style guitar and whistling. Closing track “How to Fly in Blackness” also undertakes a transformative adventure: primarily based on gentle synths, a peaceful and smooth vibe, and almost lounge-singer-style vocals, but ribbons of darkness and discord run throughout the song, more and more as it goes along, and midway through some characteristic blackened snarls appear. The final minute-plus is filled with a slowly strummed acoustic (which feels like a callback to the end of 2012’s Pneuma).
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Hypnosophy, meaning approximately “Science of sleep” (from the Ancient Greek ὕπνος “sleep” and σοφία “knowledge/wisdom”), builds upon the advant-garde and experimental nature of its predecessor, especially in one particular area: saxophone player Orestis Zyrinis, who was credited as a guest musician on 2014’s Extance, is now listed as a full-fledged band member, and the woodwind presence on this record has been ramped up accordingly. In fact, all seven of these tracks include the instrument in some capacity, whether it’s part of the mix throughout some songs, or making an unexpected appearance at certain points of others; either way, it just provides another ingredient in a fairly diverse amalgam of experimentation.
Of course, just adding a saxophone to black metal music wouldn’t be terribly new or innovative, but that isn’t the only uncommon element of this album: “Void” has some bits of sitar; following a dreamy, reverby synth intro, “Thus Ocean Swells” develops into a funky little piano-and-guitar number; the avant-black-thrash-groove “Tunnel” features various hand-drums, and these also make an appearance in the latter part of the epic closing track “Phronesis – Psychomagic,” as it shifts in an increasingly more metallic direction after starting off with a smooth psychedelic jazz feeling early on.
The vocals, too, offer much variety here: frequently the band uses snarled leads, but sometimes clean or semi-clean singing set against the growls and snarls, comparable to the blend of vocal styles in Primordial; in particular, see “Fire Walk with Me” and opening track “Oneirodynia” — and among black metal madness, the latter of these also offers up some group-sung vocals in what almost sounds like a Native American style (as often heard used by Nechochwen). For even more contrast, “Earth Tomb” includes one of the album’s catchier moments, in the form of somewhat cheerful Broadway-ensemble-style vocals in a repeated refrain; and the half-time black metal “Void” has clean, folksy female vocals (strongly melodic, though sometimes more of a banshee wail) interspersed throughout, provided by Greek singer Sofia Sarri.
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In summary, here are two bands who consistently and successfully walk the fine line of avant-garde music, without falling into the all-too-common trap of trying too hard to make things intentionally (and unnaturally) weird, or trying to mimic or emulate anybody – but who have each managed to put together a wide variety of musical and vocal styles that somehow coagulate into a bizarre but interesting and cohesive whole. Surely you’ll want to get both of these albums in your life ASAP — grab Mayhem in Blue here and Hypnosophy here.
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