Friday, September 23, 2016

In The Woods

review by Matt Spall
Artist: In The Woods
Album Title: Pure
Label: Debemur Morti Productions
Date Of Release: 16th September 2016
A mere 17 years since their last studio effort, ‘Strange In Stereo’, enigmatic Norwegian band In The Woods have emerged from their slumber and, to the great delight of aficionados and fans of extreme metal in general, have served up their fourth full-length studio album, ‘Pure’. Ever since it was revealed that In The Woods were back and were recording new material, a sense of barely controlled excitement and anticipation has been evident in many quarters. As someone who discovered In The Woods many moons ago on a black metal compilation entitled ‘Blackened Volume II’ and who owns all three previous efforts, I was one of the excited horde.
For many reasons, ‘Pure’ is a very apt title for this record, not least because it is an album that offers pure escapism and pure entertainment from start to finish, across ten compositions and an hour’s playing time. But moreover, there is a definite pureness to the musical output, a palpable sense that ‘Pure’ represents the completely honest vision and distilled essence of an older, wiser and more experienced In The Woods.
Since the release of ‘Strange In Stereo’ back in 1999, guitarist Oddvar A.M has sadly passed away and vocalist Jan Kenneth Transeth no longer stands behind the microphone. It means that In the Woods is now comprised of bassist C:M. Botteri, guitarists X. Botteri and Kåre “Corey” Sletteberg, drummer Anders Kobro with James ‘Mr Fog’ Fogarty (Meads Of Asphodel, Ewigkeit) now handling both the vocals, guitars and keys. In addition, ‘Pure’ no longer features some of the other aspects for which they were renowned, namely additional string instruments and female vocals. It is almost as if the band wanted to make a clean split with the past and reflect more purely where they are as a group of musicians the better part of two decades later. Further justification and explanation of the simple album title perhaps?
By now, you’ll hopefully realise that I really hate pigeon-holing bands into arbitrary genres or sub-genres. Unfortunately, as a music reviewer, such exercises can be a necessary evil to help define the music that I am listening to. However, it can also lead to inaccuracies as one person’s ‘black metal’ is another person’s ‘dark’, ‘doom’ or ‘avant-garde’.
Gratifyingly, In the Woods have made the job of classification pretty damn difficult and pointless thanks to their output here. I have used the aforementioned genres deliberately because these are some of the descriptions that could be hurled in the direction of ‘Pure’. Equally however, I could also legitimately mention ‘progressive metal’, ‘classic metal’ or even ‘ambient’ because these influences also crop up to a greater or lesser extent as the album develops.
Whilst on the subject of descriptions, let me throw out the names of Arcturus, Green Carnation and latter day Enslaved in order to give some kind of vague reference points about what to expect from ‘Pure’. However, aside from the occasional stylistic nod here and there, In The Woods don’t really sound like anyone else and they certainly don’t stick to one loose style of music, blinkered against everything else around them. And that, above all else, is the strength of this record and of In The Woods in general.
And whilst there’s an undeniable distillation of the band’s core sound, there’s no shortage of experimentation along the way. Each and every track is a multi-layered and multi-faceted affair which takes the listener on a journey through light and shade, changes in tempo and a myriad of different sounds and aural textures all the while remaining thought-provoking and enthralling.
What I particularly like about ‘Pure’ is indeed that depth within the music. With a free reign over the keyboards and synths, Fogarty has gone to town and made this record a genuinely atmospheric and deep-sounding affair, more keyboard-heavy and symphonic than arguably ever before. And whilst the song titles might suggest a lyrical content based around more earthly topics, there is a rich vein of celestial atmosphere within much of the material that drew my vague Arcturus comparison.
Those ‘otherworldly’ overtones are also enhanced by Fogarty’s vocals which are melodious but delivered with a beautiful simplicity. There are moments within the album when more extreme gruff vocals make an appearance but for the most part, the voice that accompanies the music is clean and full of melodic nuance. Take the opener ‘Pure’ for example, which ends by repeating a subtle melody, gradually deconstructed to the point where it is delivered by just a piano. That melody is gorgeous but is enhanced by the smooth, haunting delivery of the central lyric:
“A shining future waiting,
A promise of the pure”
‘Transmission KRS’ is both an instrumental piece and interestingly, the longest track on the album. It also happens to be one of my favourites. I love the way that it builds throughout from humble and serene beginnings carried by a simple yet effective melody, to something altogether more flamboyant and emotive, dominated by an extended guitar solo that weaves itself in and out of the composition with superb results. It’s a contender for one of the stand-out tracks of the year.
Then again, I also find the wonderfully-monikered ‘The Recalcitrant Protagonist’ is a complete joy thanks to its elegance and deceivingly complex nature. And ‘Towards The Black Surreal’ contains faint echoes of the very early days of the band whilst also delivering one of the most anthemic sections on the record which, to my mind at least, harks back to those melodic breakdowns that so littered much of the symphonic black metal of the 90s.
By contrast, ‘Blue Oceans Wake (Like A War)’ begins in synth-drenched brooding fashion full of beauty but also dripping with menace before unfolding into a heavy stomping finale, whereas ‘Cult Of Shining Stars’ represents In The Woods at perhaps their most instantly catchy thanks to the blend of excellent vocals and striking melodic intent.
I have tried to find it, believe me, but there is absolutely no filler on ‘Pure’. I don’t dislike any of the compositions and the consistent quality is very impressive indeed. It is an album that begins at a very high level and continues until the bitter end. As comeback albums go, this is very definitely one of the best I have heard. Highly recommended.
The Score Of Much Metal: 9.0
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