As Christmas approaches, so too does the easy gushing of TYMHM season. We are in the thick of it now, the best time of the year, the constant f5ing and frantic back-listening, the questions of how you completely and totally slept on that band you’d never heard of until just now. Every day heralds a batch of guaranteed winners determined to kick the certitude of yesterday’s Top Ten down a mine shaft. Halphas kindly reminds you not to ignore the humble review, because Dawn of a Crimson Empire is no less impressive than any of the December delights that have caught your eye.
In assessing Dawn, the constellation of black metal albums I’ve handled over the last year and a half rattled through my mind. More than a few were first-spin stars. Most faded into the all-black background of a scene expanding faster than the universe or tumbled down the rating ladder for slights that grew more prominent on subsequent listens. Halphas passes both tests. “Call from the Depths” slithers out from below with the ambient pacing of Leviathan and a surprisingly lush bass presence. Halphas grips their prey with a ferocious barrage of second wave riffing and Legatus’ caustic vocals before snapping back underground, dragging it deeper into its nightmarish catacombs. Follow-up “Through the Forest” haunts wooded trails with a pulsing quality that leans on a riff with whiffs of Taake tonality. Though the track, like most on the album, tends toward the long side, it never falters and rides its direction to a natural conclusion. The catchiness of the riffs are understated, but still factor in overall. Dawn would not be half as replayable were it not for the subtle earworms that wriggle out track after track.
If pressed for constructive criticism, an individual identity comes into question. The limitations of the genre pen Halphas into an area with a lot of other bands and the Germans don’t exactly run screaming for the exits. Relatively adventurous aspects of Dawn border on pageantry, hinting at the echoing chambers of Macabre Omen even as the main thrust of the music never overtly employs that pastiche. Closer “Empire” plays this most successfully. The mid-paced affair is lightly scented with melodies a breath away from an epic identity, particularly after it transitions into a back-half laden with acoustic layers, shrill tremolos, and keen drumwork from Tempestas (Nocturnal, Cross Vault). The result ends the album on a high note, and begs the question of why Dawn doesn’t apply that beautiful shade more often. “FMD” utilizes it for a finish pregnant with possibility, but only for a brief moment. Halphas could easily spice some of their flat-surfaced tracks with that texture for a more varied offering.
What Dawn lacks in experimentation, it makes up for in balance. The record is conspicuously consistent. Aside from an obligatory throwaway intro, the offering lacks clunkers and pairs harrowing atmospheres and threatening mid-tempo selections wonderfully. Guitarists Thurstan and Aynas1 craft songs that keep both the bloodthirsty and the gloom-wallowers happy. “Sword of the Necromancer” executes this ethos to perfection, stalking through the mist with its crimson-soaked blade. The track throttles up and down alternatively over its seven and a half minutes, filling the room with smoke and fear. The murderous intent in Legatus’ screams contrasts the careful melodic undertones of a black metal act that is careful not to overuse the trope.
The majority of Halphas‘ members report several other bands on their resume, though few overlap with black metal. That lack of genre experience only impresses me more, given the strength and consistency in their opening salvo. Halphas have tossed their names on the list of artists that has rebelled against the trend of weak December releases and growing TYMHM-worship. While Dawn of a Crimson Empire might seemingly have arrived too late to make a dent on list season, ask yourself: if a TYMHM that you never heard before today might make the cut, why not Halphas?