It’s a rare occurrence when a band completely floors me with a debut release. Not just show bright glimmers of potential mind you, but seriously blindside me with a sound that is fresh, unique and remarkably well developed for a first release. Such was the case when Oakland’s Secrets of the Sky seemingly emerged from nowhere with their brilliant opus To Sail Black Waters in 2013, blowing my fragile little mind and establishing themselves as a force to be reckoned with. Blending blackened progressive doom with post metal atmospherics and serious emotional heft, Secrets of the Sky successfully combined a tense ebb and flow with bruising gut punches and sprawling arrangements wrapped in bleak, claustrophobic atmosphere. It was a unique slab of genre splicing excellence which held a broad appeal, particularly for fans of challenging and atmospheric heavy music in the vein of The Atlas Moth, Isis and Neurosis. After inking a deal with the Metal Blade juggernaut, Secrets of the Sky return to deliver Pathway. So with expectations naturally lifted for the all important sophomore album, how does this powerhouse five-piece fare on album number two?
Well some nit-picking aside, pretty damn well. Pathway takes the epic, misery-strewn sprawl of To Sail Black Waters to ambitious new heights without losing the finer attributes and unique elements that created such an impact on the debut. Pathway is packed to the hilt with dense and dynamic compositions that soar, caress and punish in equal measure. Everything is on a grander scale this time around, with the production bigger and brighter, transitions smoother, and the songs more compact yet still epic and complex. Delicate, space filling keys are cushioned between muscular, weighty rhythms and the textured dual guitar work of Andrew Green and Clayton Bartholomew. The latter pair are responsible for some truly moving and crushing moments, from soft melancholic passages and bruising doom riffage, though moody atmospherics and dexterous melodic interplay they continue developing a diverse and formidable chemistry, although I do miss some of the meatier riff-based moments from the debut. Perhaps the most significant weapon in Secrets of the Sky’s arsenal is the wide ranging vocal talents of Garett Gazay. Whether belting out emotive blackened growls, deathly bellows, spoken word or mellow cleans, the dude conveys a myriad of emotions through his diverse vocal styles.
Pathway shares the same slow burning fuse as its predecessor, with smooth and dynamic song-writing that builds and releases tension while maximizing the contrasting shades of surreal hallucinatory beauty and sludgy heft the band handles so well. The fluid shape-shifting flow and emotional rollercoaster of Pathway charts an in-depth and cohesive narrative arc covering serious emotional depth and musical territory. The slow-building “Three Swords” and soaring drama of “Angel in Vines” feature colossally heavy moments anchored around predominant strains of mournful melody and shady psychedelics. However, as the album progresses the music takes a darker, heavier turn without abandoning the more restrained and melodic song-writing elements. “Garden of Prayers” is a plunging chasm of misery complete with swollen doom surges, gorgeous guitar work and an incredibly moving climax. While the seething grooves and livelier pace of “Fosforos” takes it up a notch, before getting downright sinister during its eerie backend.
Ambient soundscapes and effects-laden interludes pepper the album. Storms brewing ominously, crashing waves, mysterious footsteps, crackling fire and eerie inhuman sounds that could almost have been plucked from Resident Evil are just some of the interconnecting sound effects deployed. As brief and effectively unsettling as these interludes are, they also outnumber actual songs seven to six, which is frankly a bit overdone. Fortunately the juicy meat in the sandwich is very substantial with five of the remaining six songs delivering in spades. The only misstep is the airy balladry of “Another Light,” which finds Gazay’s cleans veering into whiny territory, particularly during the overused refrain, “I just don’t care anymore.”
Pathway was co-produced by the band and once again mixed, mastered and recorded by Juan Urteaga at Trident Studios. The sound is fittingly huge and spacious while packing a powerful sonic punch, although it could be a little more dynamic, particularly during the softer passages.
To Sail Black Waters left such a strong impression on me that I was initially disappointed by Pathway. But the longer I’ve spent with the album its undeniable charms and weighty ambition has convincingly won me over. Pathway is a rich, emotive and dangerously addictive source of soul-sucking gloom, wretched despair and unhinged aggression which confirms Secrets of the Sky as a pillar of strength and innovation in the current metal scene.