Cheekily dubbed “Be’lacore” on the promo spreadsheet and with my esteemed colleague El Cuervo dissecting the upcoming Be’lakor album, I felt it my duty to ride the coattails of that anticipated release by examining the debut full length from UK melodic death outfit Countless Skies, named after a song from the Australian melodeath kingpins. Although sharing many common attributes with Be’lakor and fellow bigwigs Insomnium and Omnium Gatherum, Countless Skies inject enough personality and interesting twists to avoid the derivative pitfalls that so often plague the melodic death sub-genre. However, eking out a shred of originality within a stagnant scene does not make for a strong album. So how do these promising Englishmen fare across an album’s worth of epic gloom?
Countless Skies have established decent underground buzz via a heavy touring schedule, a well received self-titled EP and by securing a slot on the bill for last year’s Bloodstock Open Air Festival. Not a bad build-up for their debut LP, New Dawn. Featuring all the obligatory elements to grab the attention of melodeath aficionados, from dueling guitar harmonies, gloomy atmospherics, bleak yet oddly uplifting melodies and a stirring mix of gruff death growls and stately, power-tinged clean vocals, New Dawn nails the basic aesthetics of melodic death confidently. There’s a lushness and firm structural stability to the compositions that smacks of a band that has worked tirelessly to hone their songwriting skills. Notable chinks still exist and the room for further growth is apparent, but the lads are off to a good start.
Opening instrumental “Aubade” erupts from a delicate beginning into a double bass backed feast of expressive melody and winding leads that serves as a solid precursor for the meaty, synth-laden melodic death that dominates the album. Sporting a bombastic opening, speedier forays and pulsating dynamics, the excellent “Incendium” has enough balls to offset the song’s cheesy elements and questionable guitar tone, featuring hearty nods towards Insomnium and Omnium Gatherum. Vocally, Countless Skies lean heavily on the thick, somewhat stock standard melodeath growls of Ross King and he serves the role capably enough. The twist comes with the contributions of bassist Phil Romeo, who provides dramatic clean vocals that reverberated jarringly in my ears initially, but I’ve grown to enjoy them on subsequent listens. They’re different than the typical melodic death clean style and the epic and operatic feel they provide suits the band’s triumphant gallop well. These potentially deal breaking cleans are used with tremendous impact on the thrashy and soulful energy burst of “Daybreak” and doomy, atmospheric chug of “Ethereal.” Offsetting the typical gloomy mood with anthemic, fist-pumping power plays and soaring clean vocal hooks proves one of New Dawn’s greatest strengths and endearing qualities. And refreshingly the clean vocals are used with a degree of restraint, not even making an appearance until the fourth track rolls round.
Although a few more straight-up riffs would’ve been welcome, the guitar work of King and James Pratt is otherwise commendable, driving each song with some genuinely interesting leads and harmonies, setting the mood effectively and illustrating the emotive and melancholic Scandinavian vibe permeating the album. Throw in some progressive flourishes, sorrowful acoustic passages and brighter optimism to pierce the typically bleak tone and Countless Skies edge their sound above their prominent influences in ways that prevents them being skewered by mimicry. Onto the less rosy aspects of New Dawn, the songwriting is guilty of bloating towards the back-end (parts of “Return” & the otherwise stellar “Wanderer”) and several tracks fall a few memorable moments below the ambitious highs the band aims for. Meanwhile the production, in particular the too shiny and artificial guitar tone, could use some natural warmth, grit and dynamics.
As talented as Countless Skies surely are, there’s an uneven tilt to the songwriting on New Dawn, demonstrating the ample room for artistic growth before the band can compete with the melodeath big guns. Until then, the future looks bright for Countless Skies and New Dawn is a solid debut and often compelling listen, oozing energy, emotion and a touch of class.