I hadn't heard of Wilderun until they did so well on end of year lists in 2019 with their third album, Veil of Imagination, but it turned out to be a killer, so I was eager to check out their next one when it arrived too. Well, it's just arrived and it's another exercise in dynamic play, mixing acoustic singer/songwriter material and polite alternative rock with symphonic metal with harsh vocals. It's not a typical combination but they mix it well and the transitions between them are fascinating.
It takes multiple listens to fully grasp what Wilderun do, but I needed them this time out, because this isn't remotely as immediate as Veil of Imagination. It doesn't help that my least favourites sit at the very beginning of the album: an acoustic folk song called Exhaler and fourteen minute epic Woolgatherer. I much prefer Wilderun when they're doing interesting things and they don't have any interesting things to do on Exhaler. They do on Woolgatherer but I couldn't connect with it.
I much prefer where the album goes next. Passenger is far more engaging to me, even at a single breath under ten minutes, with some very tasty heavy sections, and Identifier is a quintessential Wilderun song, visiting both extremes of what they do and yoyoing back and forth between them. There are some memorable heavy bits on this one too and some memorable quiet bits when it all breaks away and the only thing left is an acoustic guitar. I especially like the merger sections with the band exploring both sides of what they do at the same time, with experimental keyboards as the conductor of the chaos. Those sections are wild!
As you might imagine, Wilderun are not afraid of long songs. Sure, they start off with a piece only four minute and change, but then it's fouteen, ten and twelve. Ironically, the next piece, ambient noises and distant radio signals, racks up fewer than three minutes but is called Ambition. Maybe the band have always wanted to write something that short. And this looks like the album's pivot because four tracks precede it and four tracks follow, but really all that's left is one piece in four sections, the two minute epic known as Distraction.
As with most of this album, it shifts from those alternative rock parts, with their soft clean vocals, to soaring symphonic metal parts, with death growls. And, as with most of this album, I didn't like the former that much. There's a mild melancholy to Evan Anderson Berry's voice, but he chooses not to wade in it, instead singing what he thinks are happy songs about it. They're not, but they're the antidote to the melancholy, which is what makes them interesting. The more extreme sections are far more interesting, even though the death growl is an inherently more limited approach. Do I appreciate how Wilderun can shift between these modes? Absolutely. Do I particularly enjoy it in Epigone? Not really.
Distraction II may be my favourite piece here. It's sassy from the outset, with funky rhythms and a funky riff over a drone and a seamless transition into a heavy lava flow of a song. It's tellingly not as versatile as Passenger or Identifier, but it still finds a way to make that lava flow swing, Berry almost crooning in one section. What's interesting here is that it never stops being heavy, even in the crooning sections, albeit not quite as heavy as it gets, reaching blastbeats and frenetic male choir by its finalé. That's not Wilderun's MO but it makes for the best piece on the album. What's more, the best quieter piece is Distraction III right after it, rich and emotional at its quietest and elegant and searing at its loudest.
I didn't like this much on a first listen, but a second drew out some of its highlights. I don't expect to judge a Wilderun album on a single time through but it doesn't seem to be growing on me any more than that second listen. A third, fourth and fifth just underlined Passenger and Identifier as complex gems and Distraction II (and maybe III) as the highlight. And so, while Veil of Imagination got a 9/10 from me, this one will need to settle for a 7/10.