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How? - 95%

boboy, August 26th, 2014
Written based on this version: 2014, 2CD, I, Voidhanger Records (Digipak, Limited edition)

Ever since Bruce Springsteen’s The River, I have been deeply sceptical of the concept of a double album. Science has fairly conclusively shown us that the limits to human attention span are consistently shorter than we may think, or even want them to be. By stretching an album across two CDs, artists run the risk of totally overwhelming the listener with sheer volume of material, and the physical break in the album’s play length creates a less than ideal situation where one disc may be preferred to the detriment of the other. However, if there is one album that could ever make me change my stance on this, and tearfully accept the double album into my heart, this album is the album. Spectral Lore’s beautifully packaged III is two discs (Singularity and Eternity) united by one piece of breathtaking cover art, and it is simply one of the most scintillating metal releases that I have ever heard.

The opener, Omphalos, is simultaneously the shortest, darkest and most conventional track on offer here, and it tears open the first disc with dour and haunting chords over a feverish blastbeat, reminiscent in its construction of Spectral Lore’s Sentinel record of 2012. The middle portion of the track fades away to an airy ambience, before sweeping the stage clean with an ever expanding melodic motif. It is moments like this where Ayloss demonstrates immense restraint and concision when conveying ideas, as in just 7 and a half minutes, we are treated to such wild variety without compromising any flow or pace.

Omphalos is however the oddball here, and stands as the only track to not break into double digit length. For the bulk of this release, Ayloss adopts sprawling grandeur as his brush of choice, and what a truly magnificent picture he paints. Eternity’s The Spiral Fountain is the uncontested champion of this songwriting approach, building itself up to a swirling and cathartic tumult, blending beautiful melodies with complex musical arrangement, and constantly taking the listener by surprise with its emergent progressions. This track is a compositional masterclass from beginning to end, and it firmly beats its chest at the once assumed masters of black metal musicianship. Ihsahn who?

But III is not a one hit wonder dragged along by this track’s uncompromising strength; not by a long shot. Of the more black metal oriented tracks on here, The Veiled Garden is most similar in structure, and covers so much ground during its 16 minutes that we are offered everything from acoustic fingerpicking, to a crushing doom segment. A Rider Through The Lands Of An Infinite Dreamscape inherits its name from a previous Spectral Lore track, and brings major key bombast and triumph into the fray, with the song revisiting variations on a heroic opening melody to great effect. The Cold March Towards Eternal Brightness explores everything from Iron Maiden-esque melodies, to folk-tinged 1990’s black metal with spoken word accompaniment.

Across all these tracks, such variety of styles is demonstrated, but the focus and direction of the album remains so clear, without any musical rambling. It really is mesmerizing. As a multi-instrumentalist, Ayloss showcases incredible musicianship and versatility, but he never allows the songs to succumb to egotism or tackiness brought on by the prowess of his playing. This musical proficiency is best demonstrated in the more obtuse and unorthodox tracks of the album. Drifting Through Moss And Ancient Stone is an 11 and a half minute long virtuosic acoustic guitar piece, which somehow dazzles from start to finish. The ragtime piano accompaniment; the clicks and slaps on the guitar that so confidently exude Don Ross or Antoine Dufour inspiration; the gentle flute that dances above and around; there are just no words for this level of musical mastery.

The instrumental closing track Cosmic Significance is equally eccentric and beguiling, as we are invited in with a warm 1970’s synth melody which underpins the track’s growth into an electric monster. Some 14 minutes later, we plummet over a peak and shrink back to the gentle ruminations of the intro; drawing the second disc to a close and leaving us to wonder were the last hour and a half has gone. Despite the ample length of all of the tracks here, the strong composition prevents any possible sense of ennui or restlessness. Never have I experienced 11, 14 and 16 minute tracks which are so engaging and consistent across their entire length. Furthermore, transitions between seemingly disparate sections of these songs are so well executed, that there is never an Opethian judder moment to be found. The songs flow and arc across their massive lengths with such elegance, that I simply cannot pick a single moment where a riff or sequence felt forced or out of place.

And that really is just about everything I can say about this record. III is conceptually, musically and stylistically a masterpiece, and I do not throw that term around lightly. How I even begin to pick holes in this release is baffling and terrifying to me. In the only overt misstep I can conjure, the tail end of The Veiled Garden features a writhing tremolo riff which gradually disintegrates and accelerates along with a fierce blastbeat. Initially, this progression is scathing and chaotic, as no doubt intended. However, the drums soon exceed all human physical limitations and descend into farcical speed, which is slightly off putting when gelled with the otherwise grandiose poise of the track.

Other than this faux pas, the drums are generally well programmed, and do not detract from the surrounding music. In some parallel dimension where Ayloss was also a proficient drummer, the organic sound of a human behind the kit would add some additional beauty to the earthy sound of III, but we can’t possibly ask for total perfection in this world. I can barely bring myself to comment on something as banal as the production of an album of this musical gravity, but you will be pleased to know that there are no complaints. All the instruments and synths sound full and bright; the guitars are thick and scathing when required, and smooth elsewhere. Etcetera.

Rest assured, this review is not a flurry of fanboyism, nor is it a 90%+ by a reviewer who gives such ratings willy-nilly. There were moments when listening to III where I simply burst out laughing at how good this music was. It has nearly instantly earned a coveted space within the pantheon of my favourite metal albums of all time, and I can’t honestly see it leaving any time soon, as there is simply so much replay value to be expunged from its 90 minute length. Spectral Lore’s III will make you want to sell your guitar and give up, but by Jove, it’s worth it.