These days, the album bin’s like a box of chocolates: most morsels are halfway decent, except the random orange-flavored ones. Despite a name suggesting a jaunt on the Seven Seas and a promo sheet whispering sweet nothings of Insomnium, Agalloch, and Woods of Ypres, Raise the Black’s debut, Portrait, has the pinkish taste of despair to it. Their not-so-original take on the melodic death-doom fusion first proffered by Katatonia some 20-odd years ago immediately forces the band to escape the shadow of those Swedes’ quintessential debut. Dance of December Souls, Portrait is surely not, but can Raise the Black spruce up a classic for modern times?
Opener “Confined” immediately hits you with both doom barrels loaded. Fuzzy on the outside and somber on the inside, the way the Brits unfurl their guitar-work immediately draws a comparison to the melodic sorrow from Katatonia’s early years. That influence immediately appears an introspective, distortion-free bridge, the stark contrast against the previously overwhelming fuzz further depressing the mood. Alone, the guitars suffice, though their thick tones hinder the intended atmosphere. But as our anonymous vocalist’s throaty growls kick in, the wheels don’t just come off the bus, Wile E. Coyote jumps in the driver’s seat and chases the Roadrunner off the edge of the Grand Canyon. Abominable and raw, their amateurish nature is glaringly unsuited for the proceedings. Furthermore, the mix is 100% non Swanö. Portrait often sounds atrocious, prominently clipped and more static-laden than any album I’ve reviewed. The attention vacuum of poor growling only compounds this issue. Perhaps this explains the relative success of the in-between moments, as only the gentle portions of the spin leave space enough to gauze my hemorrhaging ears.
Portrait retains doom’s focus on riff-centricity, though it walks both sides of the line between “boring” and “simplicity.” Their handling of melody at times teases an interwoven reliance similar to Insomnium. However, Raise the Black never recapture the memorable high-water marks of the Finns, especially with vocal and instrumental accompaniment that provide no sustenance. Indeed, none of their stated influences truly make an appearance in Portrait’s one-note direction. Katatonia relied on compelling melodies and inspired Gothic accouterments – not to mention quality writing and vocals – for their oozing depression to resonate upon; Raise the Black’s garage stoner fuzz muddles their attempts at solemnity, straying closer to a garage stoner band. Their dinner-scrap riffs settle around average quality, but never captivate, rarely develop, and, in the case of “Hope Abandoned,” occasionally reek of tone deafness. They cannot shoulder the load of an album devoid of stellar performances and deficient in so many other areas.
As such, I am not surprised that so many poor and strange choices made it onto the album. Time signature tickles on “A Portrait of Solitude” precurse a quaint solo, but the song jars to a complete stop before returning the bland, do-nothing riffs that characterize the album. When the record throttles up, like the close to “Exiguous” or the black metal open to “Hope Abandoned,” it catches your ear, if only because there’s finally something there to catch. The latter’s momentum lasts a mere fifteen seconds, baited and switched with an uncomfortable chug-laden crawl that has me re-upping my espresso and ear plugs order from Amazon. Instrumental closer “Echoes of a Flame Extinguished” provides a peek at Raise the Black’s potential, based around successful Agallochian undercurrents offering increased complexity and respite from the distracting tones. Though the central riff on the track meanders back to the album’s standard mediocrity, a back-half diversion into early In Flames melodeath based around it earns big thumbs up. It’s the only such instance on the album.
Try as I might, I find it impossible to listen to Portrait without thinking of — and eventually listening to — Dance of December Souls. Even worse, Portrait’s 2017 192 kbps output looks like dog food side-by-side with my 1993 160 kbps copy of Dance. Raise the Black suffer for their inability to write convincing music and their insistence on mimicking a band known for precisely the opposite. In that context, Portrait does not and could never succeed.