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Sailing into dark waters - 80%

drengskap, April 23rd, 2010

It’s been three years since The Vision Bleak’s deathship last set sail with The Wolves Go Hunt Their Prey, but the Bavarian horror metal duo have returned in grand style with their fourth album, Set Sail To Mystery. As always, Schwadorf and Constanz bring plenty of authentically gothic and romantic atmosphere to their work, without descending into overblown goth-metal melodrama. The album opens with ‘A Curse Of The Grandest Kind’, a stirringly epic orchestral arrangement of sombre minor-key strings, brass, pounding martial timpani and snare-drum rolls, Constanz reciting a malevolent incantation from Lord Byron’s 1817 poem ‘Manfred’:

And a magic voice and verse
Hath baptiz'd thee with a curse…

After this, ‘Descend Into Maelstrom’ explodes into action with an urgent, chugging, Metallica-esque riff and solid rock drumming predominating over the orchestral atmospherics and peals of thunder, leaving the listener in little doubt that, for all their frockcoats and facepaint, The Vision Bleak are first and foremost a metal band.

The next two tracks, ‘I Dined With The Swans’ and ‘A Romance With The Grave’, are pretty much pitched at opposite ends of TVB’s musical range. ‘I Dined With The Swans’ is slow and ghoulishly romantic, the first-person narrative of a demented murderer with Konstanz getting thoroughly into character with vocals that could almost be classic Alice Cooper. ‘A Romance With The Grave’, though, despite its gothic title, is easily the hardest track on the album, sounding again a lot like Metallica, though with a eerie, undulating synth line floating above the crunchy, energetic riff. I recently interviewed Schwadorf for Terrorizer magazine (#195), and in an unpublished part of the interview, he discussed these two songs:

[A Romance With The Grave] is a headbanging one, yeah, and funnily, it was the first song we wrote for the album. It was a little bit like maybe a leftover, it wasn’t written for The Wolves Go Hunt Their Prey, but it was the first idea I had, the first riff for the new record. I think it’s kinda ironic we used this really romantic title, and then we have this headbanging song for it…. Then I think the second song we did was ‘I Dined With The Swans’, and that’s completely different. And you know, it’s always the first couple of ideas or riffs you have that set the mood for the whole record, and with these two extremes, the very slow, super-atmospheric ‘…Swans’ song and then the headbanging ‘Romance…’ one, that kind of set the mood for the album, what we were going to do for Set Sail To Mystery.

‘A Romance With The Grave’ isn’t quite on the same level as TVB’s signature song, ‘Lone Night Rider’, but it was enthusiastically received on the band’s recent tour, and it’s equally suitable for headbanging to or doing that mystical wavy-hand dance that goths do!

‘The Outsider’ pays TVB’s customary homage to cult horror writer HP Lovecraft, but the following track, ‘Mother Nothingness (The Triumph Of Ubbo Sathla)’ is more interesting, being the longest track on the album at over eight minutes, and it’s something of a departure for TVB, being very doomy, with vast primordial respirations leading into a slow, dirgy riff, suffused with baleful majesty. It’s far from being extreme doom metal, but fans of bands like Pantheist or My Dying Bride will lap this up. There are operatic vocals towards the end of the track, provided by guest singer Thomas Helm of Empyrium, Noekk and Sun Of The Sleepless. (Ubbo Sathla is a monstrous, amorphous fertility deity invented by the fantasy writer Clark Ashton Smith, a contemporary and close friend of HP Lovecraft.) Set Sail To Mystery’s closing track, ‘He Who Paints The Black Of Night’, combines hard-driving riffs with tremolo soloing, orchestral drama, and some female soprano vocals courtesy of Sophia Brommer, who featured much more prominently on TVB’s second album, Carpathia.

Overall, Set Sail To Mystery is a more diverse collection of songs than either Carpathia or The Wolves Go Hunt Their Prey. Carpathia was a concept album, with an emphasis on orchestral atmosphere, whilst Wolves… was a much more straightforward metal album. Set Sail… combines elements of both these approaches, along with some innovations, such as the doom metal of ‘Mother Nothingness’. My personal preference is for the more metal-oriented Wolves…, but Set Sail To Mystery is certainly not a disappointment, and ‘A Romance With The Grave’ in particular looks set to become a permanent fixture in TVB’s live repertoire.

The album is available in three different editions, the standard jewel-case CD, a deluxe digipack which comes with a bonus CD featuring seven exclusive tracks, most notably a version of I Dined With The Swans featuring vocals by Kvarforth (Shining Skitliv etc) and a cover of the Master’s hammer song ‘By The Misery of Fate He Was Haunted’. Most sumptuous of all is the 1000-copy limited-edition artbook, which has both CDs housed within a 56-page hardcover book.

This review was originally written for Judas Kiss webzine: