As my home gets buried under layers of ice and snow, an album arrives to bring that same bleak midwinter experience to everyone, no matter how sunny and tropical their geo-positioning. A Swarm of the Sun is a deeply depressive post-metal, atmospheric doom duo from Sweden, and their sophomore album The Rifts brings you all the isolation, cold and melancholy of being trapped in a cabin surrounded by nothing but whiteness, death and frozen silence. If you heard the 2012 debut by Aoria, you’ll have an idea what darkly beautiful unpleasantness awaits, as the bands are similar and both feature vocalist Erik Nilsson. If not, imagine the best parts of Katatonia, Anathema, My Dying Bride and Agalloch all submerged into a minimalist post-metal miasma, so thick not even the faintest ray of hope can penetrate.
The Rifts is an album about the various emotions of loss, despair, grief and depression, and the duo of Erik Nilsson and Jakob Berglund certainly see that through to painful fruition. From the opening piano keys of “There’s Blood on Your Hands” to the very last seconds of closer “All the Love and Glory,” nary a joyful note is to be found. No, this is essentially Hospice Metal, and you’ll get the same experience playing this as you would sitting at a loved one’s bedside as they slowly drift away. It’s a painful listen, but it’s also unrelentingly beautiful and poignant. After the somber intro, “Infants” takes you on a nine minute excursion through the grey, with understated guitar strumming and Nilsson’s downcast, near-suicidal crooning. Things are sparse and minimalist, with more urgent drumming and icy trem riffs appearing at key points alongside the sad vocals. It’s a beautiful song in all its bare bones structure, but damn if it isn’t grim.
And the mood never lightens, with forlorn instrumentals like “The Nurse” and “Years” adding to the charnel atmosphere, while creepy, vaguely menacing songs like “Incarceration” introduce Agalloch styled riffs and Nine Inch Nails aesthetics alongside vocals that sound like Billy Corgan of Smashing Pumpkins right before he jumps off a ledge.
The album highpoint (emotional lowpoint) is the ten minute long crucible of tears known as “These Depths Were Always Meant for the Both of Us,” which feels like a droning, shoegazy psych evaluation to see if you’ll ever leave the shabby custody of the state sanatorium. After much low-wattage dronery, when Nilsson’s soul killing vocals finally come in it’s like a reprise of Nine Inch Nail‘s “Hurt” but 50 times more depressing. Truly a harrowing listen, it sucks all the joy from the room and your bone marrow, especially as Nilsson sings lines like “you’re the greatest thing I’ll never be.” Fuck.
The Rifts is obviously constructed to play as one piece rather than individual songs, but good luck sitting through it without running to your mommy for a hug. It’s very well written, assembled and executed, but its sheer unhappiness will work against it for many and it’s surely an arduous, joy stealing listen.
Nilsson’s vocals are perfect for this kind of music, as he truly sounds like a man at the end of his rope, reaching out for help and support. His vocals are used sparingly and to maximum effect and he delivers his lines in a soft, plaintive croon, never expressing anything beyond abject despair. At times he reminds me of Patrick Walker (Warning, 40 Watt Sun) and the aforementioned Corgan, with a tiny bit of Maynard James Keenan (Tool) influence. I just hope the guy is okay after recording this. The guitar and keyboards by Jakob Berglund perfectly compliment the vocals and though his playing touches on post-rock, doom and black metal genres, he takes only the depressing and beautiful from each, creating a wall of morose plucking, mostly simple and understated, but brutally effective.
Sometimes things can get too droning, especially in the longer songs, but it never gets to the point of boredom. A bigger complaint may be with the core concept. The entire album is written using the color palette of grey, and there may be 50 shades of it, but you’ll only feel two or three. It’s so cold and bleak it becomes suffocating, with no moments of rage or exultation to break the ennui. You wait for some kind of resolution or epiphany, and ultimately you dare to hope for hope itself, but none of these ever materialize and you’re left holding a ghost.
The Rifts is as cold as the grave, and one of the most gripping and emotional listening experiences I’ve ever had. In fact, I was happy to get away from it, as it was seriously depressing me. Bleak beyond mere works, I’m sure some will find it cathartic, perhaps even therapeutic. Me, I need some Alestorm and a Prozac.