South Africa’s Wildernessking is an atmospheric black metal band that has undergone a maturation before our very eyes. Starting as Heathens the band played an immediate (and still excellent) form of black n’ roll. The early material was reminiscent of Enslaved, but lacked the Norwegians’ progressive punch. The writing was concise and riffy, and the word “atmospheric” would never have crossed my keyboard in those days—until the release of the track “Morning” in 2011. In 2012, under the new moniker Wildernessking, these South African ex-heathens released The Writing of Gods in the Sand, which unfurled their sound into more expansive territory. The record had a production that helped the band’s music to balance between a raw, heavy black metal feel and their growing interest for more airy writing. 2016’s Mystical Future progresses Wildernessking‘s journey, taking steps further away from the intensity and riff-driven black metal of their youth, for a more thoughtful, ponderous sound.
Mystical Future shows that there is very little of Heathens left in these black metallers. While The Writing of Gods in the Sand was still quite aggressive at times, Mystical Future is written like a slow burn. A lot of this has to do with how the album is produced; a wet production that sounds like the band was recorded live using four standing mics in a cathedral. The sound is cavernous—Jason Jardim’s drums being the most obviously demonstrative of this—but as with all mixes this wet, the attack of the drums and guitars slow down. This means that even when the band reaches peak, the sound is never quite the raw, aggressive sound of more vicious black metal. Even Keenan’s vocals are mixed extremely far back, sounding almost as though he was rasping his lyrics without a microphone—the sound saved only by the overheads.
This cavernous sound lends to a stormy feel when the band does pick up speed, however. Rather than bruising intensity, the heavy material crashes over the listener like waves. Wildernessking deftly builds songs which reach epic, heart-wrenching crescendos—recalling Anathema‘s later material. Closer “If You Leave,” which features soft female vocals, finishes the album out perfectly with an epic, fragile build. “With Arms Like Wands” features a varied blast which glues the different pieces together into something heavy and intense; pummeling down like sheets of rain. While “If You Leave” features a long introduction that feels like the first minutes of Moonsorrow‘s Varjoina kuljemme kuolleiden maassa, the build in the middle pulses with an intensity that makes poppy, sadboy melodies of the outro ache. “I Will Go to Your Tomb” even starts off with a riff that reminds me of Heathens—or Enslaved—before tempering its pace a bit.
Still, Mystical Future shows Wildernessking at its most atmospheric. There are no real burners on here, and the even the more intense moments are tempered by a production which is engineered to take the bite out of the heaviest material. The feel is fantastic, though; at times meditative, at times fragile, and at times like little earthquakes rolling over you—especially when Keenan’s bass and Jason’s drums work together. “To Transcend” closes out Side A with a delicate instrumental piece, melancholy and beautiful, placing the band a lot closer to Alcest than Enslaved.
The LP mix and the digital mix sound similar, though the digital mix is more compressed. The vinyl mix clocks in at a DR 8, which I still think is a bit high, but it sounds quite good. The fact that a band with a sound as airy and open as this would have a loud master strikes me as weird, however. The charm of Mystical Future is in the sepulchral resonance of the mix. So much of the atmosphere is carried on the backs of this production—owing a heavy nod to “Cascadian” black metal’s ham-handed plundering of Norway—and particularly the sound of the drums stands out here. The whole feel is luscious, and the mix and the tone of the production works perfectly.
Mystical Future is an excellent addition to the Wildernessking catalogue. It’s different enough from The Writing of Gods in the Sand that it’s almost difficult to compare the two. Ironically, the band took the things that I thought were the weakest about their first full-length and doubled-down on them. But rather than putting out an album that crumbles under the weight of overlong songs and repetitive riffs, they crafted something with the deft touch of a Moonsorrow or October Falls—bands whose ability to navigate the eddies of their songs makes even their 13-minute compositions gripping. Mystical Future lands somewhere between ethereal and crushing, and that seems to be exactly where Wildernessking wants to be.
DR: 8 | Media Reviewed: Lossless Vinyl Master
Label: Self-Release / Sick Man Getting Sick Records (LP)
Websites: wildernessking.bandcamp.com | wildernessking.com | facebook.com/wildernessking
Release Dates: Digital: 2016.01.25 | Vinyl: 2016.02.01 | CD: 2016.02.26