Innovation for the sake of innovation is somewhat of a doubled edged sword – you can end up with something that sounds very interesting, but turn up with nothing that really sticks to you. The general staples of the black metal sound are a well-established winning formula to those who can do it right – indeed, black metal is somewhat over-saturated with bands doing much of the same thing. This can be okay though, if a band is good enough to stick to their guns, there’s very little they need to do to please any black metal fans. Merrimack is a rather understated example in that many people don’t credit them as one of the leading greats despite the fact they’ve been going since the early 90’s. Bands that have been around that long simply don’t need to change much to still sound fresh because they’ve got the black metal sound down to a tee. Luckily for all of us, Merrimack continue the fashion of many others of the well-regarded French black metal scene and showcase a strangely imperial and massive sound. To say they’ve changed nothing would be a rather disingenuous statement, but like many other bands of their creed they simply stick to their guns of unrelenting, somewhat dissonant black metal riddled with blastbeats, loud rasps and somewhat disorienting song structures. While it doesn’t surprise, it goes to great lengths to please; which if we’re honest is what many black metal fans are looking for these days.
Every staple you would expect of a black metal band is here and in great form. The highly distorted guitars buzz away in a flurry of dissonant chords and the leads all entwine in a very attractive fashion, sometimes even going out of their way to play some pretty intricate and technical leads, sometimes hidden, but there for those with the ear. Less obvious, but very akin to Deathspell Omega‘s frantic style of playing. Merrimack do take this very mechanical and industrial influence and utilize it very well, but still manage to sound as orthodox as black metal really gets, making it very straight forward, but no less compelling to the right ears, never straying too far from basic time signatures, which is fine – this isn’t a technical black metal album. This is orthodox black metal with a few twists from their more eclectic contemporaries, which is all you ever really need for a band of this calibre. Far from Taake‘s addition of the banjo in their most recent of outputs, Merrimack don’t want to surprise. However, there are a few weirder additions to the sound, namely what sounds like a wah pedal on some of the leads, a very nice addition which adds to the disorienting style of the leads. The drums, very well produced, are more than competent for this style of uneasy, creepy black metal and the bass doesn’t have that much prominence – unfortunately.
But it all adds up to one glaring issue that becomes more evident with further listens, which is the lack of grit – everything is very clean and well produced, where not necessarily a bad thing, it’s a departure from much of their previous output. Low production values don’t make black metal, but production jobs should suit the music you’re playing. Bands like Watain have been completely slaughtered by this over-the-top studio sound rendering the music completely lifeless and where this album doesn’t go anywhere near as far, it’s still very noticeable when you consider their previous records. This may sit well with you, indeed, there’s certainly far worse out there and by no means does this sound bad, but it’s a noticeable trend with many of the earlier black metal bands that still release albums today – Gorgoroth being a prime example with their last album having a mix you could practically practice surgery off of. Though, many of the other popular French black metal bands have been using very clean production styles for a while now, both Deathspell Omega and Blut aus Nord having evolved into two very unique entities that utilize the studio-sound for much more intricate atmospheres. Merrimack does utilize some of this intricacy, but not to the same extent which makes the clean sound less of a decision I could have stood behind had I been the one behind the recording of the album.
This is nitpicking though. There are several tracks here that are good enough to make you forget about it entirely – the opening track, the short and sweet “Vestals of Descending Light” does a lot to get you excited, perhaps even opening up with the most compelling moment of the album: the dissonant whirlwind of frantic guitars and drums that make you pay attention immediately. The slow-ish (for an album like this, anyway) build of “Hypophanie” creates tension very well and has a very good pay off. The lead guitars in “Beati Estis Cum Maledixirint Vobis” sound great too, perhaps making it the strongest track of the album behind the gargantuan 8-minute finisher, “Liminal Matter Corruption,” though by this point even I was somewhat tired of the constantly jarring nature of the music. Mileage may vary, however.
There’s no doubting that Merrimack do a lot right with this album, managing to surprise when sticking to a certain formula can be a challenge that Merrimack live up to several times throughout the album’s lifespan. Perhaps it’s a bit too long for music with a lack of noticeable dynamics. Perhaps it’s also a bit too clean, but if you’re a black metal fan there’s very little to dislike about this album and if you’re desperate for more music to summon chthonic deities to, there’s little that makes this album inappropriate. A good black metal album, nothing more, nothing less, which is just about all you can ask of a band that’s been going nearly 20 years playing great black metal.