I've heard a lot of good things about And Now the Owls are Smiling, yet another one man atmospheric black metal project, this time from the wilds of Norfolk. The one man goes by Nre, so he probably has the same name as me, merely two counties up from where I was born. Of course, he's able to play a lot of different instruments, not least everything on this album, while I can only play the fool, so he has the edge on me there.
Nre plays his atmospheric black metal with a strong side of depression. The eight numbered dirges on this album apparently follow stages of depression, from initial grief all the way to death and beyond. I caught the depressive tone, not least because Nre's vocal approach is mostly to scream into the void at the unfairness of existence, but was unable to catch any sort of progression. Maybe it's there in the lyrics which are not just unintelligible but often buried so far beneath the instrumentation that I was sometimes trying to confirm to myself that vocals were happening.
I can buy into that approach, even if it seems odd. Maybe the character Nre is portraying through the cycle of depression feels that he's not being heard and that lack of acknowledgement of his suffering is fuelling further depression. I don't know if that's a deliberate decision on Nre's part or whether it's me rationalising it, but it seems to work on that level. I wonder how some of my friends who suffer from various forms of depression would see this.
What I struggled with was the fact that most of the music here sounds acutely similar. That howl into the void sits just underneath a sound that's almost entirely the same combo of hyperspeed blastbeats and full speed guitar, with a layer of oddly hopeful keyboards adding melody and texture. There's not much here that varies the tempo or indeed that sound. There are some atmospheric intros and outros and three of the dirges are short and peaceful interludes. That's the bookends, Grief, a strong opener which mixes waves with a drummed heartbeat and a choral drone, and Ascension, which is the ray of hope the album needed to end with, plus Lucidity, which is a welcome pause in the intensity.
In fact, this gets so samey that the standout tracks for me almost automatically become those with at least a little will to change things up a little. Much of Pointlessness throws out the same sound we've been listening to all along, but there are slower sections and, given the high emotional content here, that lends it some poignancy. Acceptance is slower, which is almost shocking at this point, but it's still of a consistent pace and sound throughout, so it's like the other songs but at a third of the tempo.
The twist to those rare moments of variety is that they also serve to highlight how little of it there is here, so those are double-edged swords of songs. I wonder how many times the critics who have raved about this album, the third from Nre and And Now the Owls are Smiling, have actually listened to it. I can't say I didn't like the sound that's conjured up here as it's a good sound, but I'd have appreciated the album more if there had been a second sound too and a third and a fourth.