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Hoarse - 40%

dommedagssalme, January 10th, 2019
Written based on this version: 2018, CD, Candlelight Records

Having been first implied by 2014's London, Frightened continues the band's increasingly precipitous decline into sophistication. Voices have here made a concerted move away from black metal, and while not utterly fatal, the result is a passive, and markedly less energetic affair, which also unfortunately corresponds to a significantly less emotionally complex and affecting experience than either of their previous outings (and their first in particular). London managed to maintained much of the razor-sharp musicality and focused passion demonstrated on From the Human Forest..., albeit dampened by the disastrous passages of "poetry" included at certain points. There was some sense that intuition was being replaced to some degree by cerebration, marked by both the expanded, more sophisticated sonic palette, and more narrative and concrete approach to lyrics. It was a disconcerting notion, and with Frightened it becomes more comprehensively and detrimentally realised.

Here, stylistic "developments" abound, from the much-increased emphasis on singing over screaming, the touching bases of numerous musical genres (the cool, urbane ones, of course), an even more diverse instrumental array, and a further shift towards more compact songwriting. Almost entirely absent are the blistering black metal passages, and anything that approximates such largely comes off as hollow and/or contrived. The singing (often layered) is rather weak (it never sounded this weak before?), although there are some fairly effective melodies scattered throughout. Unfortunately, some of the harmonies do seem quite awkward or overwrought, as do the occasional forays into "shouts" and especially the rather embarrassing, infantile whimpering present in one track.

I am fully aware that this is not supposed to be the same experience as their previous output, but it would be remiss of me not to note that the emotional resonance and coherence of Frightened is far more feeble than the band's previous efforts. There is a distinctly cerebral (and unappealingly neurotic) flavour to this album, and it has obviously been envisioned as a more intimately personal collection of songs compared to the sheer pathos and vehemence that was previously on display. Frightened lacks confidence, and despite the album's name, the argument that such diffidence is to be expected due to the album's themes of anxiety and grief does not work, since the lack of musical resolve means these themes are not convincingly manifested. There are simply too many passages which fail to stimulate either emotion or interest. It also unfortunately makes too many concessions to the eighties influences it desires to channel. Tracks such as Evaporated, Dead Feelings and Sequences (all characterised by Comsat Angels-like jangly guitars) feel rather empty and derivative, and the (pejoratively) drab Home Movies, with its laconic, smokey, lounge tone, comes off as emotionally inert. The influences evident here haven't effectively been synthesised into the strengths clearly apparent from the band's prior output, or are perhaps irreconcilable.

The songs are for the most part structurally simple and relatively short, with less development over their duration, and while tracks such as album opener Unknown and Manipulator present fairly satisfying rhythmic and taut periods, Frightened is too-mired in self-imposed torpor and self-aware "avoidance of cliche" to allow the dynamism and emotional intuition clear in past tracks such as Unawareness of Human Emotion, Fragmented Illustration of Anger and The House of Black Light. However, the most heinous offender of the album is closer Footsteps, which relies on saccharine, post-rock progressions throughout, adorned by redundant string accompaniment. While clearly conceived as the album's emotional zenith, it sounds more like a discount Sigur Ros track. This stands in stark contrast to Endless, which closed their first record. That track has a profound, immediate, inevitable sense of tragedy; one which stands as a beautifully emotional and cathartic reflection on the aural pain and anguish which lead up to it. In baffling comparison, Footsteps exudes a trite resignation, which, while those of an especially "sensitive" disposition may find affecting (it has a meagre and insignificant sense of hope), in fact barely enters the first dimension of emotionality.

One somewhat surviving element is David Gray's drumming, which, together with the decent (if slightly too-blunt) production, helps to flatter the flatness of much of the album's content. However, his ever-tasteful invention is sadly limited by (and wasted on) much of the music, due to the latter's frequently impotent and apathetic register. The instrumentally poignant and Radiohead-like Fascinator offers some encouragement, but the lacklustre singing does detract a little. Admittedly, I may not have considered this album as severely had it been released by another band, but my overriding impression of Frightened is one of disappointment. I don't want to do the band a disservice by wrongfully suggesting that the more accessible, less challenging flavour of Frightened is an attempt to raise their profile, but regardless of the motivation behind the concerted move away from their previous sound, the result is a record that decisively relinquishes exactly what made them so compelling; dynamic intensity, subtle, yet clear identity and emotional complexity. I understand that as bands develop (as their members age), more often than not the music's severity decreases. However Akercocke's wonderful Renaissance in Extremis demonstrates a band that, while having broadened and moderated their musical approach and altered the scope and nature of their themes, nonetheless have entirely retained their essence. After having given Frightened numerous listens, it still ultimately feels like a large step both backwards and to the side.