If there’s ever a genre that can easily convince itself that there’s no necessary requirement for sonic or stylistic variance, that genre might well be doom metal. And from the opening notes of Lycus’ Chasms, we are indeed given the impression that this band’s prime commitment may doubtlessly be to sheer size, to sheer grandiosity, yet even in that first chord I found reason to believe that this was not the whole picture. It’s a chord in medias res – from the Latin, of course, for “in the middle of things,” like an epic that opens during a battle instead of before the war – and it gives the sense that we as listeners have only now arrived to a scene that has existed and occurred continuously even prior to our arrival. I’m not sure if it technically is a suspended chord, but it at least sounds suspended in a more intuitive sense – as heavy as it is, I’m feeling more air than earth. The cover of the album, featuring stunning artwork by Paolo Girardi, seems congruent with this; what’s most notable is its sense of emptiness and expanse, and a distinct preference for the ethereal over the terrestrial. Normally I’d insert a little thumbnail off to the side, but this deserves a fuller-size reproduction:
Maybe I’m projecting, but I’d go so far as to call this image vertigo-inducing. I’m so arrested by the negative space between the ground and what appears to be a bridge that I’m almost oblivious to the actual things that otherwise occupy the scene.
I’m happy to say that a degree of artistic unity is doubtlessly achieved by how accurately this feeling of suspension over the abyss is reflected in the actual sound of this album. Opener “Solar Chamber,” which I’ve already referred to, begins to achieve this by skirting around the tonic while seldom settling on it. In less technical terms, they are ever hesitant to land on that one root note, that one anchor, that would bring a listener of meager aims to a sense of resolution, or of satisfaction. Again, this is air over earth; Lycus would rather be carried off by the emissions of Aeolus than fettered down and predictable, even if the tradeoff makes for a more challenging listen. There are any number of fun doom bands out there, so if you are just looking to groove out, take your pick; Lycus clearly strives for a grander effect, and the success of this effort finds payoff in the plentitude of moments when “grand” begins blurring into something more along the lines of “stunning” or “devastating”.
About 4 minutes in, “Solar Changes” does a somehow seamless 180, and all of the sudden Lycus is playing black metal. It’s not the last time we’ll see crossover moves like this throughout the record, and it can be downright startling how well such transitions fit adjacent the otherwise eternally uniform tempos, down-tunage, and atmospherics that one would typically associate with doom metal. And in this and other cases, the shift is matched most evidently (aside perhaps from the drum patterns) by a wide spectrum of vocal stylings that range from hauntingly clean bellows to death growls, and even the occasional black metal shriek. It’s always refreshing to see a band like this rely as much on a strong attention to diverse and ambient vocals as on detuning and distortion to create effect. And this relates not only to the aforementioned range of vocal styles, but also to the production thereof; at every turn these voices provide a convincing and integral musical element that stands right beside the rest of the instruments as an essential contributor to the sense of vast, empty magnitude which defines this record.
Strangely, however, this song does not seem to include a notable feature of all 3 remaining tracks on the album, which is the use of strings. On “Chasms” they don’t do much more than add to atmosphere, but on “Mirage” they are right up front, though never more than tastefully. The result is a harrowing evocation of despair, a more contemplative but no less compelling complement to the sheer forcefulness “Solar Changes” and plenty of other, more pummelling, moments on this album. “Mirage” might be called the closest this record comes to a ballad, and for my money the 2nd half of the song comprises as breathtaking a sequence as one might imagine on a metal record. Beginning with a subdued, clean-guitar-laden passage whose delicacy allows those strings to really shine, it eventually but deliberately crescendos for an entire 4 minutes, finally culminating in another bit of black metal and ultimately letting off, exhausted and desolate, like the last plunge into that abyss over which so much of this album seems precariously to hang.
The sheer emotional force of “Mirage” is perhaps matched by the album’s closer, “Obsidian Eyes,” which reads (listens?) like a laundry list of every impressive thing that Lycus can do. In a way that is quite fitting for an album closer, this song runs the full gamut from the most devastating valleys to the most ethereal peaks which this band is capable of traversing. While I have a great affinity for bands like Windhand who approach doom with the intent to bash you to sleep with eternal repetition of the same down-tuned chords, I’m close to floored by the effort that Lycus puts into crafting a kind of doom metal whose vastness of sound and emotional depth is matched only by the ambition to go to previously unforeseen lengths to achieve it. It feels like something that we’ve already seen embraced by American black metal bands like Agalloch and Wolves in the Throne Room – and perhaps this speaks to Lycus’ characteristic incorporation of black metal aesthetics – but it’s great to see a doom band following a similar path.
All in all Chasms is a wonderful, and wonderfully ruinous, record, and one which I will go forward considering the aural equivalent of Dante’s Paolo and Francesca. Go here to order the sucker from Relapse Records.