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With the massive gap between this second album and the breakthrough success of 2012's Sentinel, one might suspect that the bulk of the band's development had come between this second simply-titled effort and the later, more acclaimed work. Given the career trajectories of similar bands, and taking into account things such as the artwork and other aspects of the presentation, one might also suspect that the band might've done a bit of revision in its approach to songwriting as well, mutating from a simpler, more aggressive and more straightforward black metal approach toward the atmospheric, even proggy starscapes of the more recent material.
That's what you'd think, but you'd only be right about parts of it. For one thing, Spectral Lore never played anything approaching "standard" second wave type stuff and were always thoroughly drenched in atmosphere, but they didn't even begin life as your stock Burzum knock-off atmospheric stuff, either. That first album would probably come as quite a shock to those familiar with the band's recent work (it was for me, anyway) as it's got a whole lot more ethereal ambient electronic stuff than it does metal. When the metal bits did pop up it was interesting but only vaguely competently written, performed and recorded. In just the span of a single short year between the debut and this sophomore effort, Ayloss clearly spent at least as much time practicing his chops as a musician as he did working on his songwriting. The opening acoustic intro is evidence enough of his dedication to improving his guitar playing to the point where it can capably capture the ambitions of his own songcraft.
This competency thankfully carries over into the riff-driven metal parts as well, nightshade curtains of tremolo unfurling across an rain-battered sky. Like his later works, on II Ayloss masterfully builds these slowly evolving melodies of gently meandering tremolo that are so ponderous it often seems like a sinuous path through a dusky forest rather than a set of repeated riff-cycles. Though much of the metal material is entirely guitar-driven, there are parts here and there where the synths will be blended very effectively into the metal parts, hinting at Spectral Lore's later mastery of layering guitars and keyboards into denser compositions. The acoustic guitars featured in the intro return throughout the album, sometimes during interludes between longer tracks and sometimes blended into the very framework of the main songs themselves, imparting some folkish, sylvan wonder into the more serene passages.
Not everything is completely on point, though. The drum machine really detracts from the quality of the album. It's mostly mixed pretty far distant but the robotic sound of it grates against the other, more organic instrumentation in a particularly ugly way, and here and there individual drums or cymbals will randomly be far louder than the rest of the percussion, which does a lot to yank you out of the experience in an unpleasant way. Sometimes they'll also play really inhumanly fast sounding double bass or blast beats, during which the drum volume will also spike up and trample the more velvety other bits of instrumentation. The vocals are also somewhat lacking in power and emotion, something Ayloss seems aware of as it's masked by a lot of effects and multitracking with different vocal techniques. The vocal performance is fairly subtle and mixed off in the distance with loads of reverb, so despite its inadequacies it winds up being far less of a negative than that awful drum machine.
The songwriting is certainly ambitious, reflected in the fact that the second track (and first proper song) on this thing is nearly 25 minutes long. Much like the rest of album's elements, this itself is also something of a mixed bag. Sometimes transitions from one part to the next seem a bit arbitrary and just on the cusp of jarring, but other times songs flow expertly from one movement to the next, totally justifying their bloated runtimes. "The Thorns That Guide My Warpath" itself is a perfect example of this, with a few clunky transitions between movements in the first half of the song but the second half being an expert showcase in how to effectively meld epic, grandiose atmospheric black metal to deep-night synth drones where every drawn-out second is not only justified but something to be treasured. The black metal is more potent and spectacular, the ambient stuff is soul-scouring (especially the aforementioned ending of "The Thorns That Guide My Warpath" and the grandiose closer "Where Nature Will Not Ever Yield To Man," which is easily one of my favorite Spectral Lore ambient pieces).
So while it's mostly safe to write off Spectral Lore's debut as a bit of a curio for die-hards or something a bit unusual for fans of synthy atmospherics with a black metal edge, the second album is truly a solid listen full of unexpected beauty and maturity. It's got glaring flaws, yes, but the album's highlights more than make up for them and make this a very worthy listen. I might also suggest this album as a starting point for those who suspect they might really enjoy the band but don't want to dive straight into the later masterpieces.