I like to think of myself as a somewhat open-minded man-cat. After all, you don’t learn anything about people, places, things, food, and conflicting opinions with blinders on at all times. That said, after five wonderful years writing for Angry Metal Guy, I know what my limits are. Two things raise the hairs on my paws, neck, and face with no effort: one-person black metal and supergroups. So it only makes sense that my last non-Thing You Might Have Missed review of the year would be Hymnal, the debut full-length album by Arête, an American supergroup consisting of band members who all have their own one-man black metal projects (in this case, Twilight Fauna, Deafest, and Evergreen Refuge). I just had to take deep breaths and hope that this isn’t all that bad.
And to be fair, it isn’t. Well, at least not completely. Parts of Hymnal shimmer with frosty overtones and picturesque instrumentation that remind you of the Pacific Northwest, especially when opening track “Beneath the Pond” opens with a flowing river, a somber flute melody, and lush keyboards gently easing you into a realm rife with dudes with antlers and wolves occupying throne rooms. Likewise, closer “Of Endings,” lulls you into a quiet, peaceful slumber with beautiful chords and a keyboard patch that veers dangerously close to millennial-whoop territory, but not quite making the full leap into that particular abyss. In fact, Hymnal‘s strengths present themselves when Arête forgo black metal entirely, as their ability to craft beautiful atmospheric passages and ambient soundscapes succeed in pulling the listener into their world.
It’s just a shame I can’t say the same thing about the blackened side of things. Much like vocalist Paul Ravenwood’s main project, Twilight Fauna, Hymnal is low-fi as fuck, often to the album’s detriment. The acoustic guitars, flute, and ambient keyboard wooooshes all sound great, but when Hymnal switches gears, it’s like the album becomes an entirely different beast altogether, and not in a flattering way, either. The guitars sound like a buzzy mess of noise, the drums sound flat and lifeless, and I have a hard time believing there was any bass guitar at all. The only thing seemingly mixed to the front are Ravenwood’s hushed, almost whispery vocals, giving the feeling that they’re just sitting on the music instead of effectively blending in.
Of course, this wouldn’t be a problem if the music was well-written enough to handle such shortcomings, but this definitely sounds like a group of guys writing from different parts of the country without fleshing things out effectively. Once “Beneath the Pond” turns into a black metal song, it starts off okay, but as the song progresses, it just ends up a jumbled mess, where I counted no less than four different song ideas blended into a nine-minute tune. Elsewhere, the two-minute instrumental title track succeeds in feeling like much longer, with an overly repetitive twin-guitar pattern and some sloppy, off-timed snare hits. But the most damning thing of all is how “been there, done that” everything feels, as Hymnal treads the same well-worn, snow-covered grounds that Agalloch and Wolves in the Throne Room created years ago, but with nothing new or gripping to liven things up a bit.
Being a transplanted New Hampshirite, I was looking forward to Hymnal‘s mountainous soundscapes as an aural escape from my day-to-day living as a city man-cat. Instead, I’m left either bored to tears by the black metal tropes or scratching my head as to why the acoustic portion of the album wasn’t explored more, as there’s a wealth of potential lying there to be unearthed. As it stands, I will find my nature fix elsewhere.