Written By: Hell³
Rather than a true sub-genre, “avant-garde” seems more a default category for bands who can’t be pigeonholed with a nice, tidy tag. With a name like Ebonillumini it’s almost a given this is a band worthy of the avant-garde label. Less obvious is that they’re far removed from anything like an Arcturus style of forward-thinking, unconventional metal. Their jazz-like song structures and neo-classical instrumentations combine with a solid black metal base reminiscent of The Meads of Asphodel. The band’s lineup explains this similarity. Back in 2008, J.D. Tait, main composer for Meads, formed Ebonillumini with Christina Poupoutsi, singer with The Higher Craft, another of Tait’s bands. Adopting the whimsical personality of a traveling party, they took the character names of The Monk Marshall and The Maiden and released a couple of moderately successful E.P.s. Choosing to work with past and present members of the aforementioned bands, in 2013 they expanded the group and produced their first full-length, Pacificum. As the first part of a fantastic journey to some of the more exotic places around the world’s oceans, Pacificum explored locations from the Pacific rim. In the style of 19th century supernatural horror writers they developed a narrative with a mysterious musical atmosphere, instilling a healthy fear of the unknown. Well-placed, shocking moments of aestheticized Black-Metal terror served as successful resolutions to these set-ups. Their new album, Arktos, is the sequel to Pacificum and moves the theme to the Atlantic Ocean.
They take a more romantic view of these whereabouts, and this album seems more personal than Pacificum (although that’s difficult to confirm without access to the lyrics). Sentimentality seeps through the songwriting and makes the album a more subdued affair. The set-up unfortunately hasn’t much of a release even though aggression and energy are not totally absent. Arktos has bouts of great musicianship coupled with some tongue-in-cheek moments that shine through. “Lusca” is an example, telling the tale of an underwater monster in the Bahamas. It’s a bit of a cheesy chronicle with a nice mid-tempo build-up in the same neighborhood as those Japanese metal horror specialists Sigh. Considering that Mirai has notoriously collaborated with The Meads of Asphodel, it’s an understandable influence. However, not even lively stand-out tracks like “Coral Castle,” “Crystal Pyramid,” and “Ghost Ship” will be enough to keep this boat afloat against an overly pensive mood that quickly weighs on the listener.
It’s not that the band can only sound compelling when going at full-speed blackened fury. The downtempo closer “Oceanic Abyss” has a melody gripping enough to compare with the best works of noted oceanophiles, Giant Squid. But the song lasts more than nine minutes, an example of the lack of self-editing that fills most of Arktos’ tracks with unnecessary and usually aimless wanderings. Without them the album could have been a more palatable offering, but as result, the album’s hour-plus runtime becomes exhausting.
The production decisions also detract from this music. The mixing makes it obvious The Maiden’s voice is the focal point, suplanting the stronger presence of The Monk Marshall’s harsh vocals on their previous work. This wouldn’t be a problem, but when combined with a brickwalled production the heavy areas sound remarkably weak. Even her brilliant vocal acrobatics can’t save the mixing job from being a jumbled mess during the busier moments.
Arktos checks all the boxes for a release that could have been as grand as the band’s pretensions, but it’s brought down by its own reality. It’s a letdown compared to their debut and does very little to actually push the musical envelope. They’d have much more favorable result with more concise slow sections, a balanced mix and a far less brickwalled production. As it is, I can only recommend it to the most loyal followers of the band’s other projects. Others may be better off with a lifeboat and a new travel agent.