Ambience is a difficult element in metal. It seems to be its very antithesis, in fact: the aimless wandering of ambient music seems to clash with the oftentimes driven and purposeful beat of metal. Yet occasionally, bands that thrive on building atmosphere before releasing the fury have found a friend in ambient music, like last year’s Messa, which got a worshipful reception here at AMG. Now Norway’s The Soundbyte, a project of The 3rd and the Mortal guitarist Trond Engum, seeks to improve the reputation of scene-setting noisescapes with its 4th experimental platter, Solitary IV. Full disclaimer, it’s only tangentially in the camp of metal, but few experimental albums are and the material on display here is not something we want to keep from you. Let’s get to it.
The Soundbyte draw from a wide array of influences to concoct a sound not quite like any individual artist. Over the course of seven tracks, the consistent sound is a combo of space-soundscapes of a Pink Floyd species, disquieting ambience à la Messa and whispy female vocals floating on the veil like Darkher. But each track brings something else entirely to the ramble. “Fanfare” moves from a hypnotic drum pattern into ominous braying of brass. “Descending” veers between creeping industrial ambience and an unwavering military march of a riff. From the almost Kyuss-like blues riff in “North” and the Neurosis churn of “Lamentations” to the hush of “Floating” and “Estranged,” the band keeps you on your toes and handily avoids boredom or lack of variety.
The experimental disc culminates in the title-track-without-a-number, a track that rolls like clouds threatening a storm. Starting with dark but gentle guitars you might hear from If These Trees Could Talk, it shifts abruptly into a biting riff that casts a shadow over the track. Silence is built before the storm, and in the final moments, the cloudburst falls as Tone Åse lets out a bone-chilling banshee wail. After a recent surge of good albums with limp endings, it’s nice when one of the strongest tracks is saved for the grand finale.
The performances are universally powerful. From the understated, semi-tribal drums by fellow The 3rd and the Mortal member Rune Hoemsnes to the will-o-wisp vocals by Kirsti Huke (also T3&TM) that float and echo through the hypnotizing pulses of reverberating riffs. The production does full justice to the solid execution. The mix is balanced well, and the bass is not lifted so far as to drown the sound in mud. The guitar is the centerpiece, the other instruments and the vocals build around it but never does it feel like one overpowers the others. Add to that a dynamic master with good range and a natural sound and you have a solid and modern sounding album.
Although it is a very good album by any means, it does stop short of greatness for me, as it doesn’t quite have the emotional impact I look for in great albums. A lot of the music on Solitary IV makes me smile and nod, and occasionally say “neat.” It just doesn’t wow me like a truly great album does, and for an emotional listener like me that makes all the difference. However, don’t let that deter you from giving Solitary IV a swing. Unlike many ambient-influenced and post-something acts it never gets dull or repetitive, instead always searching for a new angle to approach the style. Coupled with a solid production and good performances, The Soundbyte have a successful experiment on their hands.