When writing reviews I try to spend as much time articulating “why I like the thing” as much as I do proclaiming that “the thing is good.” This is strictly for the benefit of my audience; if I fail to indicate my qualifiers for good music, a reader with far-removed expectations may feel alienated or, even worse, make a blind purchase and end up wasting hard-earned Bandcamp Bucks1. With certain genres, though, my qualifiers are difficult to nail down. Doom metal and (in the case of the subject of today’s review) dissonant forms of death or black metal rarely connect with me, and I never feel quite certain what makes these types of releases “click.” I’m not certain, then, whether Watershed Between Firmament and the Realm of Hyperborea will connect with fans of its genre as well as it did with me. Yet against my standards for quality, The Clearing Path has crafted a creative and engaging example of not just excellent extreme metal, but of artful music in general.
Fans of The Clearing Path’s debut record Watershed Between Earth and Firmament might be expecting another bout of visceral, metallic hardcore akin to Converge frozen in a chunk of blackened ice, but this follow-up plays like a less aggressive take on the experimental, blackened death metal opus Artificial Brain unleashed earlier in 2017. While I prefer the former aesthetic on paper, in practice these two records are equally ambitious and engaging, although they differ thematically as much as they do sonically. WBEaF explored a duality of chaos and beauty; WBFatRoH, conversely, is concerned with discovering the beauty within the chaos. As a result, this album is a less accessible yet more cohesive affair than its predecessor. Open-hand chords and notes are the guitars’ primary mode of operation, played in woozy progressions that are intentionally abstract yet easy to follow from a rhythmic perspective. The end result plays an impossible balancing act that feels wholly chaotic, yet somehow impeccably structured.
The somewhat disorienting compositions are counterbalanced by occasional swells of cosmic grandeur in the form of melancholic cleans, ominous choral arrangements, and creeping strings. These instances help to anchor the compositions in a realm of relative familiarity, and though WBFatRoH is an experimental affair, it feels far more accessible than it should as a result. Its most traditionally melodic passages are only half of this equation, though; if the guitar work is a bit too non-conformative for your liking, the drum work will almost assuredly throttle your attention. Sole member Gabriele Gramaglia is a great musician on all fronts, but his kit work is downright innovative. Though he writes in time signatures planted firmly in the realm of standard progressive music, established metal patterns are mere guidelines for Gramaglia. Passages like the double bass patterns in “Ankhtkheperura in Thee,” which fluctuate in pace like the methodical winding of some monolithic grandfather clock, are utterly breathtaking and make for my favorite drum performances this year.
While essentially flawless from a performance standpoint, WBFarRoH does feel a bit lackluster when it comes to individual song structures. Tracks follow non-linear paths to the finish line in that measures are rarely reprised (with the exception of “Ankhtkheperura in Thee”) to circumvent redundancy, and while this approach works well for The Clearing Path, conclusions can feel anticlimactic. The main offenders here are the abrupt instrumental drop off that closes out “The Pillars of Creation” and the extended atmospheric outro of “This Stairway Will Carry Me Towards the Grandest Light.” Even so, tracks still manage to carry strong personal identities (especially the deep, wonky death metal riffs that define “Stargazer Monolith”). The production carries a sense of uniqueness as well, with sharp drum tones and low distortion guitars, though I wish that the lush compositions had been more dynamically mixed.
Assuming you haven’t had enough Doctor Manhattan schlong for one year, WBFatRoH is a must-listen for fans of avant-garde extreme metal, especially in context with The Clearing Path’s debut. The titles of these two records suggest a thematic progression that’s a perfect match for the music, and the scope of this evolution is remarkable. Even if treated as a standalone release, the fact that I have more to say about all of its thirty-two minutes than I typically do for records more than twice its length speaks volumes of Gramaglia’s craftsmanship and ambition — and so rarely is an ambition of this scope realized as well as it is here.