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Fearlessly experimental and beautifully artistic - 85%

lukretion, November 21st, 2020

Just when I thought I was ready to wrap up my top-30 list of 2020 metal releases, Italian symphonic gothic/doom metallers Dismal drop a stunning album that can seriously challenge the top-half positions. Quinta Essentia is Dismal’s fifth album in a career that spans over 25 years, and is one of the most beautiful troves of my 2020, certainly very different from everything else I listened to this year. Combining classical music, gothic, doom, jazz, alt-rock, dark ambient, progressive rock, sampled vocals, recitations, and operatic female vocals, Quinta Essentia is an infernal cauldron that could have easily spun out of control, but that, instead, miraculously works out and stands tall in a league of its own. Granted, it’s not an easy listen and certainly not for everyone, but if you are into weird genre mash-ups or into adventurous bands like The 3rd and the Mortal, In The Woods, Beyond Dawn and Ulver (circa Themes from William Blake) – chances are that you will lap this up in a heartbeat.

The combination of classical string arrangements and gothic/doom metal won’t come as a surprise to many people in 2020. From doom-masters My Dying Bride to symphonic gothic pioneers Theatre of Tragedy and Tristania, any metal fan can name at least a couple of bands that have resorted to violins and cellos as a way to add tension to the most dramatic passages of their music. Few bands, however, have dared push things as far as Dismal do on Quinta Essentia. Typically, in most bands the orchestrations are used as an embellishment to compositions that are firmly rooted in metal aesthetics. In contrast, Dismal put them at the very center of their music, and it’s the metal that acts as an embellishment. It’s a spectacular turn of events, and one that makes Dismal’s music hard to pigeonhole or compare to other bands (Therion and Haggard come to mind, but Dismal are way more adventurous and experimental).

The 9 tracks of Quinta Essentia are built around violins, double-bass, synths and orchestrations and have a strong classical music feel to them, both in terms of instrumentation and in terms of free-form structures. There is indeed very little in the way of standard verse/chorus structures on the album. Instead, most songs twist and turn, incessantly developing their themes and motifs through continuous time changes and multi-part compositions that often exceed the 6 minutes. Yet, omnipresent drums sway things decidedly towards rock/metal territories, and raw, distorted guitar chords add a strong doom element to the music. It’s a beautiful, dramatic contrast, somewhat reminiscent of the “beauty and the beast” approach of some of the bands mentioned earlier, minus the growls and with a much more modern feel to it.

On this hybrid foundation, Dismal add a myriad of other elements and influences. There is a strong theatrical component. Sampled voices from movies and sound effects lend a soundtrack quality to the music. Narrations and recitations are also used extensively, often as an integral part of the song, like for example on “Alma Mater” that starts with a poetry reading accompanied by a melancholic piano and violin before developing into a splendid cross between doom and Italian singer-songwriter tradition. Jazz influences surface on the superb three-part piece “Turin Black Light Act I, II, III” as well as on the more alt-rock-leaning “Pale Blue Dot”, which features a beautiful sax solo. “Beyond the Matter” contains instead some interesting Arabic melodies. All these influences are filtered through tasteful rock aesthetics, which keeps the final product fresh and current and at the same time gives the whole album a coherent identity. Meanwhile, Rossana Landi’s splendid and polyhedric vocal performance elevates the music to new heights. Her beautiful voice morphs effortlessly from operatic bel canto, to earthier pop-rock wails, to theatrical narrations, to Arabic singing. With lyrics in English, Italian and Latin - often within the same song -, her histrionic and dramatic performance is simply mesmerizing and undoubtedly one of the highlights of the album. Male vocals are also used in the compositions, albeit more sparingly and most often in the form of spoken words.

It’s a fascinating mixture that does not cease to hypnotize me every time I spin the album. There are so many layers, shades and subtleties in Quinta Essentia that the album is a field day for those listeners who are more progressively inclined. Centered on weighty themes of philosophy and alchemy (several of the spoken parts are taken from the movie “Wittgenstein”, based on the life and thinking of philosopher Ludwig Wittgenstein), Quinta Essentia is not a light album, musically or thematically, and requires some significant time investment on the part of the listener. But it is absolutely worth it because Dismal have truly delivered a captivating and compelling album that is at the same time fearlessly experimental and beautifully artistic.

(Originally written for The Metal Observer)