Thursday, 9 January 2020

The Drowning - The Radiant Dark (2019)



Country: UK
Style: Doom/Death Metal
Rating: 7/10
Release Date: 8 Nov 2019
Sites: Bandcamp | Facebook | Metal Archives

I've mentioned a few times that I was around when doom/death was created. I lived in Halifax, home to bands like Paradise Lost and My Dying Bride, and I bought their work from the very beginning. I remember seeing the former live in Bradford before they had an album out, being surprised when a kid a year ahead of me at school who wore a Kiss T-shirt on non-uniform days got up on stage to drum for them.

However, while I kept up with those particular bands, my drift away from the music of the alternative nineties made me miss new bands like The Drowning, a Welsh doom/death outfit founded in 2003 whose fifth album was selected by two Angry Metal Guy reviewers as the best album of 2019 and one as maybe the best doom/death album of the decade. That's strong praise indeed. Of course I needed to check it out!

And, while I wouldn't praise it as highly as them (I rated three doom/death albums higher in 2019, though one was from the previous year: Phlebotomized, Eternal Candle and The Dead Sea), it's pretty damn good. I think my biggest problem with it was the mix, which feels off and sometimes empty. The guitars often let the music soar but the vocals of Matt Small keep it anchored to the earth. They're too prominent in the mix and the end result suffers for that. Also, Steve Hart's drums are a little too prominent as well and it often sounds like he's banging on a set of plastic tubs.

As such, The Drowning sometimes sound less like a doom/death band and more like a death metal band who play slower than usual. I should add here that slower doesn't always mean slow. Prometheus Blinded isn't particularly slow at all and the majestic guitars that open the next track, In Cold Earth, do a fantastic job of highlighting just how far the band had drifted away from doom/death. It's just a death metal song.

In Cold Earth, on the other hand, has a solid, aching weight to it and it's driven, like so much of this album, by the guitars of Mike Hitchen and Jason Hodges. They aim at a My Dying Bride feel more than a Paradise Lost one and they nail it. There are many points where I wish I could let the vocals fade away and, on this track, the drums too, which feel a little intrusive and overdone, so I can just listen to those guitars soar above the universe.

All my favourite moments here tie to those guitars. They're fine just doing business as usual, but there are moments when they shine even brighter and I found myself grinning. There's a great riff when The Triumph of the Wolf in Death moves into a quieter section and a fantastic doomy riff midway through In Cold Earth. The slowdown moments in All We Need of Hell are glorious (oh, hey, there's a bass in here too, courtesy of Richard Moore, who also suffers from the mix) and I'm talking the ones within the song as well as the grand slowdown that is it's end.

All this is to say that I enjoyed this but it didn't blow me away the way it blew away those Angry Metal Guy reviewers. That is, until we get to the last couple of tracks.

I Carve the Heart from the Universe is the longest track on the album, at a nudge over ten minutes, but it's a real gem, with the guitars doing joyous things, the drums delightfully restrained for a change and Small's vocals as versatile on this one song as they've been for the entire rest of the album. If it's exactly I wanted from this band, then Blood Marks My Grave is what I dreamed they might become. It's majestic from its first moment and it keeps on getting better.

These are how the definition of how to end an album. If the whole thing had been like these two tracks, I'd be raving about how magnificent it was too! For now, even discounting the production issues, I don't think it's anywhere near as consistent as it could be and only moments of genius here and there live up to the way the album ends. I'm happy to have finally found the band and I have four prior albums to devour. All hail British doom/death!

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