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Penance are such a strange band. As the modern era has taken the metal world by storm, Penance have kept the old school vibe alive into the 2000’s and beyond. The band is responsible for some very southern and stoner based doom metal that has built itself a loyal fan base that is worthy of boasting about, though these themes haven’t been expressed vividly until recently. Penance, to me, aren’t the best band within this style and could, as well as should, have left this style to bands that are more capable of producing top quality moments that will be relived time and again. There best record, ‘Parallel Corners’ was emotive on levels the band haven’t been able to relive since but, despite the few unworthy attempts at regaining past glories, the band had begun to settle down into a rhythm that saw them progress from average to good in the form of ‘Proving Ground’ and later, as well as more importantly, ‘Alpha & Omega’ which saw Penance improve tenfold upon what had proved very little on the cruelly titled ‘Proving Ground’. As explained in several other reviews for this band that I myself have done, Penance have a reputation for being one of the better bands in the scene and, to be honest, this strikes me as a little odd since I cannot fathom what aspects of the instrumentation people are talking about on some of the lacklustre previous efforts.
Only ‘Parallel Corners’ really signified any chance of being heralded as the “next big thing” but the band never took advantage of the status they had gained back then, in 1994, for being one of the best up-and-coming emotional doom metal bands. As they’ve progressed, as previously stated, the band have dropped the emotional essence that carried the reputation of the band solely. The acoustics, the clean vocals and the atmospherics that led to a sharp increase of positivity have all been abandoned on records leading up to this. As far as instrumentation goes on ’Spiritualnatural’, the only true piece of unexpected play has come in the form of the instrumental song, ‘The River Ara’ which flows along the semi-acoustic guitar and unconventional bagpipes. Though the latter instrument has a tendency to annoy me when placed firmly into metal soundscapes, the band manage to manoeuvre around it in order to allow the full width of emotion to flow beyond it. The bagpipes, which give a strange Scottish feel to the instrumentation, take over from the repetitive guitars and give Penance a new, and previously unseen dimension. Of course, like Penance always do, they don’t know how to faction in the best elements for long periods at a time. Instead, they seemingly become afraid of what leading the sound with experimentation might do to the overall sound of the records.
They never know a good thing when it hits them, they never have done, so they revert back to a style they’re not that convincing at -- this style being the overcompensating style of doom intertwined with stoner that bands like Britain’s Electric Wizard are always going to be more accomplished and able to do. The best part of this new direction is Brian’s vocals, which compliment the catchy guitars well enough to establish the stoner theme as sufficient amount to be noticed by the listener who casually drifts in and out of consciousness as the record becomes fairly predictable in monotony, despite the increase of experimentation. Its always been strange how Penance could manage to sound so monotonous and repetitive, despite trying their best to blend some sort of experimenting into their unappealing style. The vocals, as aforementioned, are the most steady part of the portrayal, with Brian seeking redemption for his role in the demise of this band, which didn’t come too long ago in the distant past. Songs like ‘Regret’ juxtapose ideas suitably, but never with any real conviction that would mean the band progresses on from mediocrity to brilliant. The vocals and guitars appeal upbeat, even jovial (as they do throughout, take ‘Casting Long Shadows’ as an example of this formulaic view) but the lyrical themes have always suggested that this American band sing about the despair in their individual lives.
There used to be a sense of honesty in the vocal portrayal that made the lyrics feel real to me, but that was lost with the change of vocalist. Though Brian has a voice suited to this style of traditional doom along the lines of bands like Trouble, mixed with subtle stoner influences, his voice isn’t as emotionally convincing, no matter what the lyrics might say. There is an unfortunate irony in the lyrics, which might just be me reading too much into things, but at one stage, the vocalist screams in his clean voice, “lay the world at my feet!” -- the irony comes in the fact that, at one stage, Penance had the doom world at their feet and although they still have a loyal following from nostalgic listeners, they never managed to move on from what they had begun and instead, like the cliché suggests, continued with a process of one step forward, two steps backwards. The highlight of this piece is, once again, laughably ironic; ‘Long Suffering’. Enjoy.