I have a strange relationship with In the Woods…. Back when I was first discovering underground metal and devouring all the obscure releases I could find in the Internet’s further reaches, I remember being taken aback one night by a mysterious 1995 debut called Heart of the Ages. Both the record’s hazy cover art and the esoteric black metal contained within conveyed a haunting, archaic timelessness that, oddly enough, was so powerful it actually discouraged me from returning to the album after my initial awestruck listens. The mystique was furthered by the fact that Woods broke up in 2000 – years before I ever heard of them – and released two stylistically different but equally mesmerizing albums after Ages in the form of 1997’s Omnio and 1999’s Strange in Stereo. Abandoning the banshee shrieks for clean vocals, these records showed the band incorporating violin, heart-wrenching singing, and even some female vocals to transform themselves into some kind of avant-garde/progressive metal outfit. With it, Woods generated a sense of cosmic boundlessness and cemented themselves as one of early black metal’s most puzzling enigmas – less well-known than fellow Norwegians Ulver, but equally as captivating in their stylistic arc.
Thus it was with some intrigue that I approached Pure, the group’s first new record in 17 years. After several members spent time in gothic doom act Green Carnation (who reformed after Woods’ dissolution), three Woods members reunited and recruited James Fogarty (The Meads of Asphodel, Ewigkeit) in 2015 to provide vocals, keyboards, lyrics, and additional guitars for this newest venture.
But rather than get into what Pure is, it may be easier to start with what it’s not. This is not a hearkening back to the raw blackness of Ages, nor a career retrospective à la Surgical Steel. Instead, Pure seems to pull from the members’ experience in Carnation to continue Woods’ ongoing evolution, resulting in what’s best described as a doomier, more psychedelic version of modern Enslaved. Opener “Pure” begins things promisingly enough, riding on a triumphant recurring lead, thrumming bass lines, cooing spacey synths, and thick trudging guitars which soon reveal themselves to be the bedrock of the remaining nine tracks. The later sections of “Pure” even recall Woods’ early melodic similarities to doom metal’s Peaceville Three, while moments like the cycling main melody and strained sustained leads of “The Recalcitrant Protagonist” evoke comparisons to modern doom like Swallow the Sun. Likewise, late highlight “Towards the Black Surreal” channels Sun’s The Morning Never Came with its misty opening picking before climaxing with ‘oh-oh’ crooning.
Unfortunately, not everything goes down so well. Throughout these 67 minutes, Fogarty sticks to a smooth, soulful bellow which – while competent enough – becomes monotonous by album’s end, and lacks the emotional grip of Jan Transeth’s performance on Omnio. Likewise, the slow shambling tempo grows tedious, with tracks like “Blue Oceans Rise (Like a War)” consisting of sluggish chugging that fails to go anywhere. Too many of these songs linger on stock riffs and basic clean picking that we’ve heard a million times before – so much so that when a decent lick does arrive, as in “These Dark Dreams,” it feels way more exciting than it should. Soaring leads and memorable melodies are all too scarce, replaced with guitar chords which do little more than shuffle around with a weighty modern crunch. Even for its DR rating, Pure is surprisingly loud, and while the rich layers reward repeat listens (like with the smooth krautrock synths and occasional background rasps) the overall atmosphere lacks the ethereal expanse of Woods’ earlier records.
Still, it’s not a total loss. For all its flaws, Pure is constructed well, with the hypnotic acoustic strumming, delay-pedal leads, and swooning extended solo of sprawling instrumental “Transmission KRS” providing a welcome dose of ambiance late in the runtime. The better tracks are evenly distributed throughout, and for all my mixed feelings on Fogarty, he does nail some engaging vocal lines in tracks like “Devil’s at the Door.” The overall effect is an easy, inoffensive listen, an album performed well and with just enough variety, atmospheric texture, and solid moments that listening never becomes an outright chore. But while it’s a decent comeback that fans of epic doom or synthy prog metal may enjoy more, in the end, I can’t shake the feeling that In the Woods… – a band who once so richly inspired wispy-eyed daydreams of rolling unexplored countryside – should be better than this.