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Ebony Tears have refined their style of melodic death metal from their debut, shedding the violins (bar one interlude), trimming down their long arrangements, and distilling their style to waste no time with uncertain arrangements. Their music is on the very thrashy, aggressive side of melodic death metal, similar to the execution of later At the Gates, but with a different mood and emotional angle. While ATG crafted a hopeless and desolate feeling, Ebony Tears were able to channel the mystical, fantastic angle of Eucharist and In Flames. ATG are still certainly the most dominant comparison in execution - something I will refer to repeatedly as it's the easiest way to explain it, but the differences are not on the surface, and they are what shape this album.
The most outward similarity of the music is to At the Gates' "Slaughter of the Soul", primarily because the vocalist sounds like a slightly less manic Tomas Lindberg and half of the riffing is a very similar style. The riffing that isn't that same style is what gives the music it's unique and enjoyable character. The drumming and riffing arrangement of the upbeat sections resembles that same style too, tick tock drumming and a mix of tremolo riffing and string skipped Gothenburg riffs. There is a lot of hard, driving melodeath that is strong on its own, a good example of typical Gothenburg riffing - pedaling the lower string while skipping strings to pick out a melody as the drums whack away - but the other sections of the music are what really color and frame the music to make it succeed and stand out.
While the comparison to At the Gates is the simplest reference, perhaps one that one wouldn't get past without being a devout follower of melodeath, the feeling of the music is what really makes this stand out. The atmosphere and feeling of this album are similar to Eucharist, a blend of their older realm of a darker death metal sound and the cleaner, mystical atmosphere of their later works. There is a very thrashy component in this melodeath - it's certainly more reckless and aggressive than early In Flames or Dark Tranquillity, it doesn't layer harmonies, but it still carries some of the magical feeling of their classics. The feeling that I try to describe is split in two ways - it's very thrashy and aggressive, but it also has an old school mystical, melodic feel that tends to get lost when melodeath bands play fast and become more aggressive.
A few tracks stand out in how they shape the album. "When Depression Speaks" contrasts very tight, fast, breakneck thrashing to some slower melodic riffing that has a nice groove that cuts the tempo and rocks slower, but it doesn't enter the discoloring territory of chugging grooves that plague modern melodeath and characterize metalcore. The tone and the feeling of the song are rounded out perfectly by somber clean guitar passages - brief, minor pieces that are very similar to the clean guitar parts found on "Slaughter of the Soul", but less cold and more sorrowful.
The interlude "Erised" is an eerie serenade of melodic violins with a sharp, screeching tone. It sounds eerily reminiscent of the music from Dragon Warrior III, perhaps in the eastern village Zipangu, before you fight the mythical, many-headed dragon beast Orochi. The Zipangu shrine music - look it up and get a hold of the NES game, but beware that the GBC re-release was plagued with weird Japanese shit that adversely affected the ancient, mystical atmosphere of the game like Soilwork killed melodeath a few years after this album. Alas, I am speaking of the wrong thing from the 90s that you should enjoy, and there is plenty of buzz about that game, yet little for Ebony Tears. The interlude is perfect though. This type of styling seems to have been sparsely used, and uniquely 90s, where a shrill sound with a thoughtfully composed melody perfectly conjures the feeling that the band wishes to convey. The presence of something like this colors the entire album - where certain parts might be emotionally ambiguous and uncolored, these melodic breaks provide the setting for the album. It's not polished and pummeling as melodeath seemed to evolve into, it is ancient and mystical - antiquated and lost in the gloss and flair of newer productions, less accessible and requiring the conscious will to want to become involved in an experience rather than simply observing it as a passerby.
The final track on the album is my favorite, a perfect mix of the factors that make the rest of the album enjoyable. A sweeping melody distorts in pitch, gradually getting higher, before exploding into one of the more intense examples of the riffing on the rest of the album. Another simple, yet captivating melody fits in perfectly in a section between the aggressive riffing, and they seem to shift flawlessly between the three speeds they like to use. The song is so well composed that one could get lost simply following the vocals and miss some of the subtler aspects of the composition.
"A Handful of Nothing" is an excellent, finely focused album from the golden era of melodic death metal. Ebony Tears distilled the magic of melodeath - the slower parts that shape the mood and atmosphere - and blended them flawlessly with the vicious, aggressive side of the style that powered it too. It clocks in at just over 30 minutes, with no time wasted - a band with a vision who knows exactly how to convey it, how to arrange it, and how to frame it. A great melodic death metal album, and certainly one of the best that went unnoticed.