March 2012 appears to be what March 2011 was supposed to be: a banner month for extreme metal of all stripes. While last year we got a bunch of albums that were worth forgetting, this year we’re going to get a bunch of records that we’re going to have a hell of a time forgetting. It’s a bitch of a time to be releasing your album, if you think about it. Going up against names like Spawn of Possession, Sigh, Gorod, Secrets of the Moon and Borknagar, little, Greek nobodies Hail Spirit Noir have their work cut out for them. But while all of those albums (except Gorod because Listenable Records refuses to answer my e-mails) are waiting in line, they will have to follow in the footsteps of Pneuma. This is a remarkable record… and I mean it in the good way this time.
I was taken aback when record opener “Mountain of Horror” started with its creepy soundscapes and 60s rock distortion. The orchestral strains were neat, but as it shuffled forward—not really heavy at all—with vocalist Theoharis’s pained screams slightly reminiscent of Kvarforth, I couldn’t help but think “What the fuck?” That general feeling was reinforced when the band broke into a blast section using their bongwater rock instruments. As that careened forward it quickly transformed into something that sounded like The Doors on crack, with organ seeping over the lines and as it transformed into the end of the song it generally just reinforced my feeling… WTF?
Once I got past the Pneuma‘s idiosyncrasies, I began to appreciate what a fascinating and unique album it is. Combining black metal with 60s and 70s rock is not something that seems like it would be very easy, but Hail Spirit Noir is quite deft in the way they combine the two. Raw, ripping black metal still pummels the listener, but with audial qualities that make it much less ‘heavy’ because of the lack of overdrive and tinny guitar tone inherent to 1980s solid state amps and contrasted with lush, melodic beauty and corduroy progressive strains. Songs like “Let Your Devil Come In” and “Against the Curse, We Dream” (a nomination for the best song of 2012, if you’re keeping track) rely on this sort of stoner rock base, with crippling, evil black metal screams and clean vocals that really remind me of Akercocke.
What I like about this kind of stuff, which it also shares with the much more mainstream and polished Ghost, is that it packages something evil and nuts into something that is fun to listen to and easy to digest. Sure, this is weird and avantgarde in a way, but at the same time the introduction to “When All Is Black,” with its flute, lilting pace and keyboards, sounds like something my dad could listen to. It creates almost a surreal feeling when listening to the record. All this happy melody and music, then is from time is offset by disharmonic and atonal sections that splash hot goat blood in the face of the listener: “Wake up, this is still a black metal album.” And it’s charming as hell, to be frank.
What’s a little weird, is that while the band kind of reminds me of Ved Buens Ende or Solefald, it reminds me a lot more of the new Sigh album In Somniphobia which is coming out in about a week. The tracks have the same kind of dreamy, evil quality to them. Where Sigh succeeds and Hail Spirit Noir fails is in the instrumentation. While I appreciate what Hail Spirit Noir is doing with their instrumentation—using the same instruments and settings for the metal parts and the “rock” parts—it often feels like it lacks teeth and it takes away from the effectiveness of the tracks a bit. But that’s literally my only complaint. Other than that, the record is loaded with amazing tracks, fascinating music and melodies that you’ll run around singing for days (“Let your devil come inside / Let your soul fly up to the sky / The golden rod was made for you (?)/ Kill your mother while you’re still in her womb!”). Fans of cool, evil, experimental black metal are strongly encouraged to purchase this record. It will not leave your rotation for months, I guarantee it.