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A nomadic conquest of the black metal genre. - 89%

ConorFynes, June 13th, 2014
Written based on this version: 2014, 2CD, I, Voidhanger Records (Digipak, Limited edition)

I'm honestly not sure where to begin with this one. Though my previous experiences with Greece's Spectral Lore have always sought to challenge me as a self-proclaimed veteran of atmospheric black metal, I was always able to summarize my thoughts on the music without too much of an issue. Sentinel was as ambitious an album as they come, and comparisons to Blut Aus Nord, Deathspell Omega or even The Ruins of Beverast wouldn't have gone unfounded. It's not that Spectral Lore has switched gears on III so much as the project's range has been broadened to the point of defying any single, all-encompassing description. If anything's for certain, it's that the weight of multi-instrumentalist Ayloss' ambition has been the catalyst for one of the most intriguing, impressive and far-reaching black metal records in recent memory. For what it lacks in structural coherence or conventionally satisfying 'flow', III more than compensates with the overall impression of awe I've been left with. Even after listening to it a dozen-odd times, I still only feel I've begun to scratch the surface, and believe me when I say that it's a rare thing for a new album strikes me that way.

III feels distinguished in many ways; it's also an album I'm not sure could have been created by anyone save for a one-man band. While a collaboration between members may have entailed a measure of compromise or restriction to shared common ground, Spectral Lore feels like a stream-of-consciousness insight into Ayloss' musical tastes and aspirations. Only the work of a single artist could explain the puzzling melange and range of style on the album. Arms have been outreached to both the discordant and 'beautiful' sides of black metal alike; while the abrupt opening of "Omphalos" recalls the swirling dissonance of Portal or Deathspell Omega, "The Cold March Towards Eternal Brightness" dives midway into Woods of Desolation-variety post-black metal. When that segment tapers off, the album switches gears and immerses itself into a Nokturnal Mortum-style pagan foray, complete with folkish atmosphere and symphonic undertones. The track after that, "Drifting Through Moss and Ancient Stone", absolves itself of metal completely and aims for brooding acoustic ambiance somewhere between Americana and dark folk a la Agalloch. For most of the album's closing track "Cosmic Significance", Spectral Lore even adopts a sort of Berlin School space electronic approach in line with Klaus Schulze or Tangerine Dream. I could go on for ages; these change-ups are abundant and spread consistently throughout III. It's not the overwhelming range that necessarily impresses me so much as the conviction with which Ayloss drives these stylistic forays. It doesn't matter whether Spectral Lore is playing some shade of black metal or another genre entirely; the music becomes convincingly immersed in that style and it sounds like Ayloss was born to play that style. That sort of awe-inspiring versatility as a musician isn't something that can be learned directly; it can come only from an enriched knowledge of genre and sincere dedication to music. It's clear to me that Ayloss has both.

It's quite brilliant that, while III manages to convey such a rich sense of range and variety in its hour-and-a-half running time, Spectral Lore rare strays from its roots in black metal and ambient music. If anything, III is an expression of the black metal's own stylistic vastness; rest assured, Spectral Lore travel across the genre's spectrum with few stones left unturned. As so often seems to be the case for experimentally-inclined works, the defining strength of III also feels like its most crippling weakness. Sentinel was an arguably less impressive album than this, but there was a sense of all-encompassing identity that gave it logic as a start-to-finish album (its half-hour ambient denouement notwithstanding). With III, it feels like there is material enough here to inspire four or five masterpiece-worthy albums. To me, Ayloss is akin to a nomadic warlord, galloping through territories and conquering each one mercilessly, but never settling down to develop upon that success. At the end of III, as impressed as I've been with the album, I'm left wondering what potential could still be hiding in each one of Spectral Lore's styles. What if Ayloss settled down and capitalized on the dissonant black metal of "Omphalos", or the pagan atmosphere of "The Cold March Towards Eternal Brightness" and "The Spiral Fountain"? What about his ambient work; "Drifting Through Moss and Ancient Stone" and "Cosmic Significance" each hold their own promises. I don't remember the last time I heard an album that captured my imagination so much and made me wonder 'what if' like this. Ultimately, if there's one thing that's keeping me from calling III the black metal masterpiece it was created to be, it's this lack of identity, and I do think Spectral Lore could have taken the same range and structured it more effectively.

There's no doubt in my mind that Spectral Lore's music is black metal, but more than that it would be nigh-impossible to better articulate its style, save to say there are many of them. It's a frustration to me both as a listener and reviewer of the work, but it's a small burden compared to the major successes Spectral Lore has conjured on III. I have no doubt that my relationship with the album will continue to mold and evolve with the coming months, and I wouldn't dispel the possibility that the gripes I have might eventually dissipate in time. For the present, it's rather incredible to behold such an uncompromising expression of one man's artistic vision and creativity.

Also, did I forget to mention that III has my favourite album cover of 2014?

Originally written for Heathen Harvest Periodical