Pestilential Shadows comes from the land down under, where the women glow and men plunder. Listen closely, and you’ll hear their black metal thunder. Listen even closer, and you’ll run for cover. Gimmicky introduction aside, the men in Pestilential Shadows have been at work making some seriously bleak music since 2003, and their fifth album, Ephemeral, shows no signs of deviating from this path. This is fairly unsurprising, as the band has had veterans of Woods of Desolation, the excellent Nazxul, Drowning the Light, and Nox Inferi cycle through their ranks in their decade of existence. Does this sort of predictability serve the band well?
I can think of one place where it doesn’t: the requisite spooky intro that is somehow still considered a great idea in 2014. “Throes” isn’t terrible as far as these things go, but the sickly, lurching intro of “Mill of Discord” could have opened up the album just as effectively, if not more so. “Mill of Discord” becomes an early highlight of the album by successfully marrying melody with raw emotion; think of a heavier Woods of Desolation and you’re on the right track. Likewise, “Fragments” is built on a series of riffs and melodies that are both bleak and beautiful, conjuring up a sense of the serene calm and crushing loneliness one would feel walking through a once-bustling city, abandoned and transformed into a hollow ghost town. This sort of atmosphere pervades the majority of Ephemeral, and makes the well-placed heavier sections, like the Darkthrone-y (think of a faster “Panzerfaust”) riff in “Sorrow of Tongues,” hit even harder. Each song on Ephemeral is an involving composition that demands full attention to be truly enjoyed. Pestilential Shadows are strong enough songwriters to make it worth paying full attention for Ephemeral’s 44 minute runtime, showing great attention to detail for the vast majority of the album.
Alas, there is always a “but.” The majority of Ephemeral is great stuff, but sometimes the band misses the mark a little bit, mainly in “Hymn of Isolation and Suicide.” While the whole song is not a wash, the beginning sounds a bit too close to a Shining (bloody bathtub version) outtake to my ears, but the band rebounds with some of the beautiful brutality that they do so well. The title track plods along with a riff reminiscent of Deathspell Omega’s “Salowe Vision,” which while it’s really good material, at ten minutes in length it could have used a bit of editing, as it does repeat itself a bit too much. Thankfully this is a minor flaw, as the song was good enough to hold my interest through its duration, but it did detract from the riffs and melodies’ impact later in the song.
Adding to the positive impact is the production. While not good in the Pale Communion sense, it successfully captures a harsh atmosphere while allowing each instrument to be heard clearly, including the bass, which is actually quite present in the mix. If I were to nitpick, it’s a bit too loud and the kick drum is the first thing to get lost when things get hectic, but the razor-sharp abrasive guitars, perfectly placed vocals, and wonderfully present bass makes up for these complaints. It’s not as clean sounding as previous album Depths, but to my ears the production here better serves Pestilential Shadows’ sound.
Ultimately, Ephemeral doesn’t do anything new, but it doesn’t have to. Pestilential Shadows have all but mastered a depressing yet engaging black metal sound, bringing the best elements of Woods of Desolation, Nazxul, and Drowning the Light into one cohesive package. It’s epic but not over blown, melodic but not too accessible, atmospheric without being droning white noise, memorable but not transparently hooky, and a full album as opposed to a mere collection of songs. In short, Ephemeral is highly recommended.