Sometimes the right setting is everything for a metal album. Fortunately for myself, through a pretty atypical series of life events I’ve had the opportunity to enjoy several records in environments that bring out their absolute best. I’ve listened to Ahab while snuggled below decks on a three-masted barque sailing in the North Atlantic, I’ve listened to Wolves in the Throne Room while hiking the lush forests of the Pacific Northwest, I’ve listened to Baroness while cruising through the humid towns of southeastern America, and I’ve listened to The Acacia Strain while cleaning my toilet. But Æ.Thy.Rift, the third album from Australian one-man black metal project Ill Omen, isn’t one of those albums that just benefits from a proper listening environment – it demands one.
Formed in 2006, Ill Omen was originally a mellow down-tempo black metal project not unlike Nocternity or Lunar Aurora. Æ.Thy.Rift shows sole member ‘IV’ (Temple Nightside, ex-Austere) essentially shifting to Skepticism-style funeral doom, with a few blackened sections remaining to spice up the party. With two layers of bass guitar (one distorted and one clean), organ-like guitars that occasionally sound like downtuned synthesizers (maybe they are?), simple drumming, deep bellowing roars, and a production that sounds like the Earth itself has been ripped open, IV has clearly done his homework on the genre. But do the songs hold up?
Opener “I” sure does. Beginning with a serene choir-like opening that transitions to reverberating Lead and Aether-style chords, the sound is both gargantuan and ominous. Some sluggish clean-picking a few minutes in successfully heightens the drama, but it’s the sudden blasting and horrifying riff that appears about nine minutes into this 13 minute opus that really seals it – if the previous minutes were the sound of a lost explorer stumbling through R’lyeh, this riff is the sound of Cthulhu awakening to devour him alive. Another brief foray into the down-tempo morass, a repeat of the blackened portion, and a final twirling, echoing melody all package “I” up into a damn fine track. Combining a dense atmosphere with effective songwriting, this is how funeral doom is done.
Sadly, the rest of Rift never quite measures up. That’s not to say it’s bad – simply that the songwriting isn’t quite there. “II” presents an interesting initial idea with its clean, tangled main riff, but its repetition for half of this 8-minute track (and slight metamorphosis for the second half) make it an effectively chilling expedition that lacks a destination. “III” redeems things somewhat, with its foreboding crypt-keeper whispers, rich synthy melody, and distant moaning vocals, but the structure is very similar to “I” – only this time, the blasty black metal portion doesn’t feel quite as effective. Closer “IV” is the epilogue that didn’t need to exist, a three-and-a-half minute sample of buried moans and washy chords that sounds more like a snippet from a larger composition than anything that could stand on its own.
Rift’s real redeeming factor is its palpable, morose mood. In songs with so much repetition, a deeply entrancing mood can make the slightest tempo-shift or introduction of a lead melody feel absolutely monolithic. I said earlier how this record requires the right setting – music like this, with those slight but critical changes, is best appreciated with a focused listen, preferably while walking alone at night under a wide-open sky, while you imagine that thick bassy hum is the Earth itself groaning. (Or just listen to it while you scratch your ass and eat Cheetos, that’s fine too).
The mix is a bit soupy, but no elements are lost – if anything, it helps one fully tune in and adds to the ethereal gloom. Overall, sure, some bits here are about as noteworthy as the second half of Full Metal Jacket, but in the right setting the impact of Rift is powerful. While the removal of “IV” and better songwriting would have helped, at 39 minutes the record hardly inspires tedium, and shows Ill Omen has some serious potential in the genre. Fans of Esoteric, Skepticism, and diSEMBOWELMENT (and by default, Inverloch) will probably enjoy quite a bit. Just don’t expect a year-end contender.