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A varied landscape of pain and despair - 75%

blackoz, November 26th, 2007

With “Ill Innocence”, Gallhammer begins to fulfil the promise hinted at on “The Dawn Of …” At the very least it’s a down payment and the album shows the band is prepared to experiment and push the boundaries of the rather limited style they assayed on their first Peaceville release.

The opener is the manifesto. “At the Onset of the Age of Despair” was one of the strongest demos on the earlier disc, a funeral dirge with inventive texture and strident vocals. Here with the full studio treatment, the performance is still minimal but thought has been given to presentation. The bass plays the lead line in the solo section, defining the harmony against the guitar’s chiming suspended chords. The drums emphasise dramatic shifts and by song’s end you can hear and feel how far the band has progressed.

Even though slow tempos dominate, the band shows it can motor, especially on the second track, “Speed of Blood”, reminiscent of Burzum in sound and arrangement. The pace is maintained through the third track, “Blind My Eyes”, one of the best on the album and the pick for a single if the band ever felt so inclined.

The strongest virtue of this album which lifts it above previous efforts is the array of ideas, imagination and variety in evidence. The members of Gallhammer are not virtuosos, nor do they try or pretend to be. Their website admits that each player started out as a vocalist and that the band was formed even before the three members had sufficiently learned their instruments. Rather than simply bash harder to cover up their limitations, the musicians have opted for brain over brawn. Guitar and bass tones are varied track by track, from clean to brassy to flat-out distorted. Restraint is employed to good effect in both composition and arrangement. The restful, Zen-like start to “Song of Fall”, for example, is hypnotic in its simplicity. “SLOG” presents a mini-symphony of building texture and drama. The closer, “Long Scary Dream”, is an instrumental tone poem of phased bass and distant moans of disembodied despair.

At times the band’s “ill innocence” shows. Tempos can be a little ragged and uncertain but as with the previous disc the sheer chutzpah drives the music enough to keep it on track. On occasion, the drifting feel can be an advantage. Faust in the 1970’s used uncommitted tempo to great effect, never allowing pieces to become “songs” in the conventional sense. Gallhammer do it too, particularly on the excellent (and appropriately named) “SLOG” which lurches and meanders its way to a surprising climax. At around five minutes into the track a choir surrounds the band as it begins its mountain climb to a triumphant up-tempo crescendo, a nerve-tingling moment on my first listen.

Vocals remain Gallhammer’s forte while they woodshed on their instruments. Vivian can easily take her place in the growling girls’ club and she still sounds unmistakeably feminine, even sexy. All three players contribute vocals, from the growl to the wail and even to clean vox on rare occasions. In “Blind My Eyes” it gets a little comical with the two vocalists chasing each other like a werewolf on the tail of Minnie Mouse.

“Ill Innocence” might feature less than stellar musicianship, but there’s a strong musical sense throughout. The album is surprisingly enjoyable, more so than the previous album, and certainly reveals greater depth on successive plays.