Ambitious, thoughtful, dynamic black metal.
If you based your opinion on Illyria's second album, 'The Carpathian Summit', from the first couple of singles alone - 'Swansong' and 'Kenopsia' - you'd probably just file them under the "Deafheaven Clone" category and move right on. But how you would miss out in doing so. For Illyria do not seem to give a single fuck about being like any other band except for their own with LP #2. Because what's so great about Illyria's newest epic is it isn't just Alcest, Lantlos or 'Sunbather' worship; it's so much more than that. Now, the black-gaze and post-black-metal moments are all still there, don't get me wrong. However, what makes this 70-minute-long, 11-track beast stand out are the many stylistic and dynamic peaks and troughs that it navigates expertly through.
This thing kept me glued to the edge of my seat throughout it's expansive run-time. Every song stands on it's own two feet, in their own special way. 'The Carpathian Summit' is well over an long but it's a grand journey; it never feels over-done or too much. These compositions can be rather long, yes, but the five-piece make good use of that length, providing ample air-time to various passages and full songs that feel deserved but never gratuitous. In so many words, it's methodical yet never boring or meandering in it's grandiose movements and musical contrasts.
Sure, there's plenty of melodic guitars and tremolo flying over fast blast-beats and high-pitched screams drenched in reverb, but those typical (and effective) blackgaze elements aren't what completely define the DNA of 'The Carpathian Summit'. Nor do the band adhere to much of an old-school "cvlt" mentality; the kind that's got a raging hard-on for endless blasts and a guitar approach best described as 'diads for days'. There's just so much better composition, texture and dynamic occurring here than not just their 2016 debut album, but many other bands of their ilk. Alongside a blackened maelstrom, you'll find horns, jazz breaks, delicate acoustic moments, choral hymns, Gregorian chanting, beautiful clean singing, melodic hardcore shifts and more. This sure ain't your father's black metal, kids.
Seven-minute opener 'Resurgence' contains an eerie intro, with delayed-guitar strums over sparse cymbal hits and rumbling bass lines, before becoming a straight-forward tapping-laden, riff-driven heavy metal rush. That is, at least, until a surprising but heavenly choral mid-section arrives, lead by vocalist Ilija Stajić, who imbues the album with plenty of vocal variety, whether screaming, singing or chanting. From there, a quick, bass-heavy proggy/jazz break pulls things forward as Illyria guide you back to the blackened goodness with guitar harmonies, rhythmic urgency, low growls, and tasteful cleans with the choir returning once again. It's a pretty bold first-track, but remember what I said earlier? This band really aren't sticking themselves within any pre-conceived boxes.
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'Wilderness' begins life out with a groovy bass pattern from Daniel Hacking, packed with a great tone, before dark and sunken de-tuned guitars start to pull you under. With a sturdy sixteenth note hi-hat pattern, a gloomy alt-rock clean-sung section twists and turns into a piercing black metal hurricane of screaming-singing overlays and thundering double kicks. 'Wilderness' is melodic, dense, blackened, and so fucking cool! Returning to serene, minimal sections between its heavy bouts of intensive black metal, it's akin to a lush forest on a sunny day only to later be caught in an howling blizzard. It's here the album's solid production job from guitarist George Blacklock becomes apparent. 'The Carpathian Summit' tows a sturdy line between raw, natural and more polished sounds, making each song come alive. On top of that, Matt Unkovich brings so much to the band as their drummer; notice his excellent pedal and cymbal work throughout. The guy knows just the right things to hit at just the right moment.
The album's first curve-ball, 'Autumn Fades Away' is a lovely acoustic piece, coming out of nowhere yet still meshes with the record's vibe perfectly. With Ilija's clean vocals slipping over acoustic six-strings, the guitars pick up as the band explode into a post-black-metal stampede with soaring melodic leads. Similarly, the neo-folk 'Echo Flower, Pt. 1' makes strong use of spindling acoustic guitar motifs over choral vocalisations, all leading into its sibling song, 'Echo Flower, Pt. 2'. With one last acoustic strum, and a quick hi-hat count in, Illyria gallop ahead onto this wicked, better half. Here, they sound more like a melodic hardcore band, with powerful pitched screams (courtesy of Statues frontman, Alex Shom) changing things up, all before racing back into another black metal miasma via some wonderfully tight transitions. Through some duelling, call-and-response clean guitars halfway through, the track morphs out of the heavy realm and into a jazzy number with odd-timings, interesting harmonies, and strong emphasis on the ride cymbal and snare-rim clicks. It's different, unexpected even, but it works. Truly, Illyria's creative flourishes seem to know no bounds.
'The Second Day of Spring' shows off the band's love for a good ol' fashioned post-rock detour. Here, sounds of birds and insects chirp away before being overtaken by a gorgeous soundscape of glistening tremolo and clean arpeggios, later funnelling into a surging, wall-of-sound eruption of percussion, riffs and blackened screams. Oh, and concluding this very same track with some vibraphones? Yeah, why not? Things like this are exactly what makes Illyria's latest so exciting.
I've written before about 'Swansong' and 'Kenopsia', and they're easily the album's more traditional blackgaze bangers, containing personal lyrical discussions about death, family histories and the traumas of the past. They're two of my personal favourite cuts; the latter's groove being so well-written and those screams of "swansong" expressed in such a pained manner, whereas the latter slugs it's way through stomping blackgaze before a classic black metal riff kicks off it's brisker, savage second half. A second half that all drops away only to revel in a mighty climax of washing cymbals, firing pedals, and flurried guitars. There's a seamless transition between the pair that maintains the record's speed as well; two attention-grabbing sides of the same golden coin.
We now arrive at what I think should've been the album's peak, with the titular cut. What stands out right away is the fact that it's 13 bloody minutes long. I'm not going to say that it goes by quick or that it feels like it's over an instance; it doesn't. But the band handle that longer flow from movement to movement extremely well. There's even a lonesome, mourning trumpet early on before a holy, tectonic blackgaze part touches down. Later on, the band shoot you back to jazz town with noodling guitars, more trumpet, great chord voicings (guitarist George Blacklock's tone and playing across this record is wonderful), and some awesome rhythm-section interplay. They even slide in some grand piano right in the outro as well. Honestly, the whole title track could've just been four or five different songs, yet it feels so comprehensive; it's got a bit of everything that you'll hear on this monster of an album.
'The Final Bastion' sees Illyria get their black-thrash on, with faster rhythms, dark timbres, and a brutal, blunt-force approach. The song's opening marching snare rolls, subtle xylophones, full-loaded distortion, and ominous choirs imply a grim war-march, yet furious traditional black metal moments drag you right out to the front lines. By this point, the band have already proven they can pull off 'delicate' and 'pretty', but now they fucking mean business with a track of pure bedlam with the album's heaviest song; screaming chromatic guitars and all.
Then, 'Winter's Wedding' wraps things up, moving from restrained and minimal to an explosive Phrygian wasteland like many of it's predecessors do. In a way, it finishes the record much like it first began; concluding the end of a seasonal "trilogy" that started with 'Autumn Fades Away' and was continued with 'The Second Day Of Spring'. However, this final track's placement is actually the only real nitpick I can level at the record, with said closer (and 'The Final Bastion') just feeling a little bit anti-climactic as the album's last moments, making the solid track pacing hitherto kinda uneven. The title track feels instead like the proper summit view, whereas the following two songs are more like the trip back down the mountain side. Nonetheless, 'Winter's Wedding' still feels like it belongs; plays off the tracks that came before it; and brings proceedings to a fine enough finish.
Another great aspect to the nature of 'The Carpathian Summit' is the eco-friendly commentary behind its theme and image. From the front cover showing a sloth of bears happily playing in the woods, to the sounds of forests and fauna that breathe their way into the woodlands of Illyria's latest work, this album is about the natural world, the chaos humans spill over it, enjoying the simple things, and finding a connection with our world (and its history) during our busy day-to-day lives. It reminds me of older bands like Emperor, Satyricon, or even Wolves In The Throne Room writing music about man's connection or separation from the natural world; titling songs about worshipping cold winters; about how much or how little divides us from the animalistic beginnings. As it turns out, Illyria seem to have their own views on such matters, how these things interweave into our own personal histories and lives.
With that all in mind, this also seems like the perfect album for when frustration overflows and you throw your hands up saying "fuck it all", deciding to live alone in some Canadian or Tasmanian wilderness. Or perhaps even as a hermit living in the shadow of the very European mountain region that this album derives it's name from. Well, no matter the locale, as long as one still possesses the means to play 'The Carpathian Summit' in full, that'd be a fulfilling lifestyle choice.
Illyria aren't here to refine what we all know about black-gaze or progressive metal. No, they're here to make their own mark, in their own way no less. A concept that some other bands just cannot seem to grasp, as Illyria pull from many other musical genres than simply progressive or black metal. Despite the band's youth, their talent ripples everywhere here, showing that they're musically informed and well-learned, but bold as well. And that drive has taken the Perth act confidently into new tonal, vocal and instrumental waters with the creative and dynamic magnitude of 'The Carpathian Summit'.
Lengthy, but so worth the climb, 'The Carpathian Summit' is a big win for not just Illyria, but black metal as a whole. It's another shining example of how interesting and malleable this genre can be when brought under the wings of talented songwriting, various instrumentation, and real ambition. It's conscious and thoughtful post-black metal with personality and soul. With a record full of different ideas yet always stellar musical cuts, there's a new-found sense of synchronicity to Illyria's sound that just wasn't present on their debut, solid as it was. Yet this new epic truly goes above and beyond; this is one towering pinnacle you'll want to best.
Autumn Fades Away
Echo Flower, Pt. 1
Echo Flower, Pt. 2
The Second Day Of Spring
The Carpathian Summit
The Final Bastion
'The Carpathian Summit' is out now.