And Now the Owls are Smiling – Dirges Review

While padding lightly through the damp forests of local Seattle trails, I’ve encountered foreboding signage cautioning passerby of barred owl swoopings. In broad daylight, owls have been known to swoop down with virtually no sound and claw at the back of people’s heads with their sharp talons, oftentimes drawing blood. Thankfully, I have not yet experienced such a spooky and downright horrifying encounter myself, but I do know of multiple runner friends who have found themselves in one of these harrowing situations. I have little reason to believe And Now the Owls are Smiling‘s band name was inspired by the vengeful owls of the Pacific Northwest seeing as the one-man band hails from Norfolk, England. Nevertheless, the band name certainly caught me off guard and lured me in. 

Every time I encounter a new one-man atmospheric black metal band, I seem to forget how many bands with this descriptor I’ve been disappointed and bitten by in the past. I guess I shouldn’t blame myself when so many of the bands in this genre tend towards the forgettable and uninspiring. Atmospheric black metal is home to many of my most cherished bands (AmiensusAsiraAlcest — I’m looking at you). But the longer my stint here at Angry Metal Guy lasts (it still blows my mind that I haven’t yet been fired), the more frequently I discover bands falling into the trap of slapping together sloppy tremolo picking and cringey synths and calling it atmospheric black metal. Too often, these bands come across as attempting to follow a very prescribed formula without giving the music their own signature. Don’t get me wrong. I love a good ethereal synth and the juxtaposition of dreamy atmosphere with reverb-heavy trem picking, but the lack of originality many of these bands express is befuddling. And yet my introduction to ANtOaS is another example of me identifying yet another one-man atmoblack outfit and forging ahead with newfound optimism.

The first track, “Dirge I: Grief,” sets the mood for the album. The sound of cold waves viciously lapping upon a rocky shore followed by faint drumming and choral voices provided me with some semblance of hope that Dirges was not going to tumble into the bottomless pit of mediocre one-man black metal bands I’ve listened to in the past. Followup track “Dirge II: Rejection,” an entirely enjoyable track on its own, kept my hopes up for the rest of the album. The Empyrium meets Lustre song is delightfully melancholic from the first chord, and the black metal wails that surface a minute in mirror the barbarity of the icy waves in the opening track.  Sadly, the first ten minutes of And Now the Owls are Smiling (ANtOaS)’s third full-length album were too good to be true.

Ultimately, the remaining thirty-five minutes of Dirges leave a lot to be desired. The instrumentation sounds unintentionally untidy, and the growling vocals scattered throughout the album are barely audible, a poor choice even if intentional. The same synth sound was recycled liberally and overstayed its welcome, eventually growing to sound chintzy. Given the descriptive names of each of the eight tracks on Dirges (“Solitude,” “Lucidity,” and “Acceptance”, for example), I was hoping for more of a progression or story arch from listening to the album start to finish. Instead of a coherent story, I was led aimlessly through a series of repetitive and lackluster tracks. Even the acoustic fingerpicking pattern at the closing of “Dirge III: Darkness,” which should have been unique and unpredictable, felt trite as it sounded too similar to Kansas‘s “Dust in the Wind.”

Dirges is a truly mournful album. After spending a year where “Darkness,” “Solitude,” and “Pointlessness” were good acquaintances, listening to something so depressing yet uninteresting isn’t quite the vibe I’m digging right now. For what it’s worth, I did appreciate the closing track, “Dirge VIII: Ascension.” While many of the other tracks failed to resonate with their track titles, this one did evoke a feeling of being elevated. It’s as if a weight was being lifted from my shoulders as the ambience washed over me. Sadly, the album closer wasn’t enough to rescue Dirges from the growing list of lukewarm atmoblack releases. Until next time.


Rating: 2.0/5.0
DR: 7 | Format Reviewed: 320 kbps mp3
Label: Clobber Records
Websites: andnowtheowlsaresmiling.bandcamp.com | facebook.com/andnowtheowlsaresmiling
Releases Worldwide: January 29th, 2021

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