Atmospheric black metal. Some run to the hills, disgusted by the label, while others embrace it with an incredible fervor, an addict in desperate need of his next fix. Part of the beauty, or tedium, of the ‘atmospheric’ label is its elusiveness. Ranging from one-man bedroom-studio synth-heavy releases to six-piece major-label indie-black-digeridoo extravaganzas and everything in between, I never really know what freakish concoction awaits. With scant information to be found on the internet about Vukari – a four piece from the Windy City – except for the succinct yet undefinable ‘atmospheric black metal’ tag attached to a dramatic smoke-infused promo photo, I prepared myself for a plunge into the unknown. What would I pluck from the magic atmospheric black-metal hat today? Divination, Vukari’s second full-length release, is a surprisingly impressive mesh of core black metal – diverse and sharp riffage and harrowing vocals alongside an impending sense of chaos – and atmosphere. Whirring, shimmering and immersive ambient and instrumental subtleties sit aside never over-indulgent, all enhancing the forlorn and mournful mood. Accompanying this is a reliance on that mystical essence that sends some fleeing and others frothing with joy: melody.
Divination relies heavily on satisfying and memorable lead guitar melodies that intertwine with expressive and bouncy bass-lines and drumming. The lead guitar work is diverse yet fluid: from the sharp and manic leads in “Divination II” to the pleasant and twinkling guitar lines at the opening of “Curses Honorum.” Onward through the crisp and angelic guitar lines of “Ad Delerium II,” akin to the textured approach of fellow Chicagoan post-rockers Russian Circles, to the abrasive and scratching noises of “Invictus Maneo,” akin to a less maniacal Leviathan, Divination manages to bond a variety of approaches through memorable transitions and progressions. Testament to the power of melody, certain riffs pop into my head at random points throughout the day much to my satisfaction.
Song structure and direction, particularly with longer songs, is important and thankfully the album on the whole does not suffer from meandering and forgetful repetitiveness (although the final track – the eleven minute faux-epic “Bathe in the Divine Light” does fall short of the well-crafted 37 minutes that precede it). “Curses Honorum,” the strongest song on the album, moves through three decisive and memorable sections. Opening with galloping drums, soaring tremolo melodies and menacing double-layered rasps, you’d be forgiven for thinking you were listening to an unreleased Panopticon track. At two minutes the song transitions into a punchier, fist-pumping section, espousing a Destroyer 666 vibe as the guitars groove with a black-thrash crustiness and strings bend with an unrelenting fury. At four minutes the song sharply shifts into an airier soundscape: a brief moment of quiet allows for the bass to take center stage, probing the fret-board before the drums emerge with a hi-hat tapping groove beneath tender intertwining guitars. It all builds towards a post-metal inspired crescendo; as the heaviness rises the vocals cascade into the mix with a full-fat doom-like gruffness similar to Aaron Turner of Isis fame.
The drums and bass perform an equally important role throughout, often moving beyond the confines of the sodden black metal prison in favor of expressive inflections with bubbly grooves and swipes aplenty. The vocals, too, are varied and powerful, switching between a deep sludge-like growl and a more typical sandpaper-throated rasp. These subtleties are aided by a reasonably strong production; the album feels spacious, allowing for the textured interplay of sounds to glisten. Vukari, two minutes in to “Sovereignty Through Extreme Tyranny,” manage to drag the rotten black-metal corpse to cosmic heights – think Mare Cognitum and Spectral Lore – as guitars climb higher and higher up the melodic ladder and vocals morph and malfunction like screams from an untethered spaceman.
Overall Divination is an immersive and interesting listening experience. One of my few complaints would be that songs seem to fizzle out without much sense of purpose or intent. For the sake of expansiveness it feels like the band had attempted to wring as much atmosphere from the songs as possible, but more succinct tracks may have been more successful. Either way Divination has some truly stunning moments that warrant many repeat listens. For a second album by a young band this is very promising stuff, taking the best parts from some of the best bands in the genre, treating them with care and respect, and expanding on them to create a well-crafted album. Vukari settle for a piece of every pie and the mix of ingredients doesn’t taste too bad at all.