It took me three full listens of one-man German black metal project Sun of the Sleepless’ debut while thinking “Gee, this guy sure likes The Vision Bleak!” before I realized “that guy” is actually The Vision Bleak’s Ulf Theodor Schwadorf. In retrospect, I can’t blame myself for my ignorance. While SotS actually predates TVB by a year, Schwadorf spent nearly two decades honing his aesthetic through the latter band’s death-soaked riffs and gothic horror atmosphere, whereas the former is only just now poking its head out from the underground after a decade of inactivity. While it’s totally unsurprising that traits of TVB would be present in this solo outing, Sun of the Sleepless is much more than just The Vision Black1. To the Elements is a triumphant modern black metal record, folding old and new corners of the style together in a work of stark beauty that feels unique and relevant in the current field.
Sun of the Sleepless’ handle on black metal is supremely confident and impressively nuanced. The first proper track, “Motions,” is a sprawling, bittersweet piece that immediately establishes Schwadorf’s surefootedness, gorgeous melodies naturally flowing into each other through the subtle adding and subtracting of guitar, synth, and choral layers. This fluid songwriting remains static throughout To the Elements and offers a sense of craftsmanship that’s sorely absent from most traditional black metal records. “Traditional” isn’t quite an accurate descriptor, though. While SotS owes much to traditional black metal (see the wonderfully authentic Darkthrone worship in “Realm of the Bark”), it often emulates the rhythmic blast beating and major scale melodics of atmospheric black metal and post-black metal, respectively. Schwadorf harvests traits from these genre offshoots without ever fully conforming to them, resulting in a colorful playbook that fully fleshes out TtE’s concise run-time.
If the progressive compositions represent the brains of Sun of the Sleepless, its persistent, authentic atmosphere is its vibrant, beating heart. The blossoming song structures and the melodies contained within feel organic and seamless, a quality perhaps born of Schwadorf’s infatuation with the untamed forest. I often neglect to touch on lyrics and themes (especially when discussing extreme metal), but To the Elements’ music feels intrinsically tied to its words. The topics, which range from the ceaseless forces of the wilderness (“Motions”) to the cleansing properties of fire (“Phoenix Rise”), are beautifully written celebrations of evergreen environs synonymous with black metal, nailing what makes the genre function on an emotional level without succumbing to Satanic or anti-Christian tropes. This atmosphere is so consistent in both the lyrics and the music itself that “The Forest,” a brief acoustic number that heavily recalls Schwadorf’s Empyrium project, somehow feels completely at home among the chilly tremolo runs and abrasive, barking vox.
The atmosphere is persistent throughout, yet To the Elements isn’t lacking in weight to anchor its aura. This is an uncommonly heavy black metal album akin in style to fellow countrymen Secrets of the Moon, Schwadorf importing his signature downtuned guitar style to craft weighty passages that the genre typically leaves behind in favor of frigid, blistering blasting. The latter certainly isn’t in short supply here, but moments like the doomy, methodical crush of “Where in My Childhood Lived a Witch” (which builds towards an immensely satisfying payoff in a blastbeat run that had me positively grinning on first listen) and the stomping melodeath crunch of “Phoenix Rise” lend the album not only weight, but an impressive level of variety that never feels forced. My only minor disappointment with the song structures is that certain tracks (namely “Motions” and “Where in My Childhood…”) opt for extended fade-outs rather than proper conclusions, but the record is so engaging on a whole that this is an easily glossed-over quibble when I’m not in review mode.
On multiple occasions I’ve seen instances where one of our commenters asks a question that I feel is one of the most common among metal fans: “Where do I start with black metal?” This is never an easy question to address as individual tastes widely vary, but To the Elements might be a prime jumping off point as a celebration of the genre’s entire history without reverting to low-fi “throwback” production gimmickry. Sun of the Sleepless has forged a gorgeous record, not just in the bleak, sorrowful mode endemic to black metal’s atonal nature, but in the more conventional sense that implies sweeping melodies and thoughtful construction. Genre newcomer or no, you’d be lucky to find a more instantly and thoroughly appealing black metal record this year.