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Black metal, with its emphasis on repetition, nature, and sheer power, has always been good at capturing the Kantian idea of the sublime; the kind of fearful awe we feel when we look at immense structures, human-made or otherwise. A band like Darkspace draw from the sublime of the unending cosmos, and the horror of human scientific potential. Last year, Melbourne group, The Peregrine turned the cold woodland environmental tropes of black metal on its head with their album ‘Rust and Dun’, evoking the crushing vastness of the Australian desert. In conversations about the sublime, the sea tends to be overlooked, with people preferring Nietzschean images of looking down on the world from atop a mountain. Yet the sea has always been a part of the sublime. In fact, the photo for the Wikipedia page of the sublime in philosophy is Caspar David Friedrich’s 19th-century romantic painting, Wanderer Above the Sea of Fog; even mountains reminded the painter of the ocean. If like me, you’ve ever taken psychedelic drugs and stared out from the shore, then you might better understand how the mind struggles to come to terms with how vast and powerful it is.
Thermohaline explores that gothic power of the ocean on their debut full-length, ‘Maelström’. The band’s name, referring to global ocean currents, draws on the sea’s all-encompassing scope, and how a crew living on a ship for months at a time is drawn by forces beyond their comprehension. As much as metal’s allegiance to HP Lovecraft is played out these days, I think allusions to the sea’s unfathomability draw on the author’s ideas in a way that’s relatively understated and thankfully doesn’t refer to him or his mythos by name.
Instead, this Portugal-Brazil-Argentina-Belgium band draws from pre-Lovecraft gothic and mythic ideas of the sea. My example of the former is the opening track, ‘Obra Dinn‘, which tells the story of a crew of sailors who have all died on board, and who are eternally punished as a ghost crew. It didn’t take me long to figure out that this is basically the entire “Davey Jones” plot in the Pirates of the Caribbean movies, but hey, that plot was goofy and fun, and unlike the movies, the song isn’t painfully long. Nor does it feature Orlando Bloom.
‘Maelström‘ draws upon the mythic tales of the sea on the song ‘Sirens’, with one crucial change from the Greek original: rather than outright saying that the Sirens are women, the song never acknowledges what the Sirens are exactly, simply referring to them by name. This allows the song to steer clear of the Ancient Greek thought that women are temptresses who will inevitably steer men off course, and instead present Sirens as the confounding force of the sea itself, which is probably closer to how seafarers’ tales of Siren songs began in the first place.
The record’s instrumentation does so much to evoke the sea, flowing from one style to the next with ease: from atmospheric black metal in the vein of Harakiri for the Sky; to Portal’s dissonant, churning madness; even to some deathcore-esque moments, like on the beginning of ‘Shipwrecked’. In fact, ‘Shipwrecked’ is maybe the best example of the band’s variety, as the band uses their three different vocal styles in a single song. Death metal growls, tormented shouts, retching black metal screams, and even some clean vocals spread their Eldritch tentacles throughout the track. The album’s only idiosyncrasy missing from ‘Shipwrecked’ is the electronic moments, which range from late-era Ulver on ‘Sirens’ to the genuinely frightening samples that bookmark ‘Dark Corners of the Earth’ that remind me of Gnaw Their Tongues, seeing the album at its most horrifying.
One concerning point coming into ‘Maelström’ is that despite the band taking themselves very seriously, there’s an inherent risk in looking too cheesy for one’s own good when embracing nautical themes whole cloth. But besides one moment, a short accordion lick on ‘Adamastor’, the album uses its odder instruments surprisingly tastefully, without any of the ham-fisted corniness of viral sea shanties or Alestorm. An organ interlude in the middle of ‘Shipwrecked’ fits the gothic imagery perfectly, sounding romantic and sinister at the same time, like a salt-brined Type O Negative. And despite that one laughable moment, the remaining album’s use of accordion is quite impressive, with the intro to ‘Obra Dinn’ coupling accordion with swirling guitars to leave listeners appropriately disoriented, and the maudlin accordion tune towards the end of ‘Sirens’.
If I have one criticism of ‘Maelström’, it’s that the drums, which I’m pretty sure are programmed, tend to be quite static. They often remain on just the one beat or rhythm for quite some time in any given passage or song. This works if a band is emulating a skin-tearing blizzard, like Paysage d’Hiver for example. But for the sea? Yeah, I think some more dynamism would’ve been welcome.
Our own Portal are proper experts at this, with instrumentation that churns and swells from one moment to the next, kinda like a ship stuck in a storm. While I said earlier the band emulates this sound, particularly the beginning of ‘Adamastor’ and the end of ‘Dark Corners of the Sea’, which do sound quite a bit like Portal’s ‘Vexovoid’, I also wished the band would explore the sound further. Another way to evoke the ocean is to use something like Liturgy’s notorious burst beat, which Hunter Hunt-Hendrix specifically says ebbs and flows. This all being said, the album does manage to create a stunning crescendo at the end of ‘Shipwrecked’, with maybe the album’s most glaring lack of dynamic drums, so my sole criticism can only go so far.
Thermohaline has delivered a progressive, post-black metal debut full-length that is as powerful as it is weird, perfectly suited to the vastness of the ocean and all the bizarre things that lurk within. Despite the one little niggle of its lack of dynamic drum work, the album lands its interesting concept extremely well. Now, where’s the damn rum?
1. Obra Dinn
5. Dark Corners of the Ocean
‘Maelström’ is out now: