When Grymm awarded Ashbringer‘s debut, Vacant, a deserved 3.5 back in 2015, he was writing about the self-released exploits of a one-man black metal project, delivered by someone then aged 18. Scroll forward four years and Nick Stanger, Mr. Ashbringer himself, has, presumably, reached the ripe old age of 20-something. He’s also released a second record (2016’s Yūgen, which we failed to review)1, gathered around him a group of three other musicians and signed a deal with Prosthetic Records. Now a four-person collective – or ‘band,’ if you will – Ashbringer are ready to drop their third album, Absolution. In summing up his praise for Vacant, Grymm concluded that, with the talent on show from Stanger alone, “there’s more to be heard, and it will be damn good, I’m sure.” Was Grymm on the money?
Let’s not beat about the Ash spinney here, absolutely he was! Absolution is a brilliant record. Whilst retaining elements of the folky, experimental black metal feel that defined Vacant, Ashbringer have piled on the melody and a post-something vibe, infusing other elements besides. On the first two tracks, for example, there are undeniable jazz elements, with time signatures all over the place, particularly in Ian Sutherland’s excellent work on drums. Those two songs, that is the title track and “Wilderness Walk,” which is currently occupying an impressively high spot on my Song o’ the Year playlist, take us very nearly 17 minutes into this 68-minute beast of an album. As Absolution progresses, the jazz elements make way, as a more melodic DSBM feel a la Unreqvited‘s Mosaic I: L’Amour et L’Ardeur comes to the fore.
It’s certainly true to say that, with each album, Ashbringer have strayed further from the depths of the black metal woods in which Stanger began. That’s not to say that heaviness has been abandoned, however. It hasn’t. But whereas, on Vacant, this came in the form of static and mountains of feedback, blast beats and trem-picked guitars, Absolution relies on a more complex layering of sound, with screaming guitars and frantic drumming complementing Stanger’s howled vocals. Despite the harsh nature of the vocals, which fall somewhere between Jacob Bannon of Converge and Isis‘ Aaron Turner, the lyrical content is not all bleak. Ashbringer close “Dreamscape,” for example, on an almost hopeful note, with Stanger beseeching us to “dream of a world without scarcity, dream of a world without suffering … dream of a world united as one.” “Eternal Separation Pt. 2,” the second half of a 16-minute epic, is perhaps the heaviest thing on here but its stripped back harshness is intelligently tempered by the soaring guitars and keyboards. Musically, this Ashbringer record, in its use of melody and atmosphere, as well as transitions from heaviness to delicateness, reminds me a lot of Sólstafir, most particularly on “Spiritual Architecture.”
The sound on show throughout Absolution is a little rough around the edges and deliberately so, I think. The leads from Stanger on guitar are crystal clear, down to the sound of finger on fret in the acoustic passages, as are Cormac Piper’s keyboards, but Nathan Wallestad’s excellent work on bass is given just enough feedback and static edges to work perfectly with the raw vocals. If this were cleaned up further, you would entirely lose the gritty, wild feel of the record. If I have one criticism of what Ashbringer have done here, it’s the length. At almost 70 minutes, with the shortest of the eight tracks clocking in at 7:09, this is long. Now, it may feel a little unfair to criticize an album I really, really like for being too long. With music this good, why not make it long, the more the better, surely? Well, in theory but, as Grymm thought with Vacant, “more could be said with a little less.”
I don’t want that to take away, however, from how much I like this record. With Absolution, Ashbringer have, in my humble opinion, delivered something special. The blend of melody and harshness, coupled with cross-genre creativity will keep me coming back to this album, which is the best thing I’ve reviewed since being upgraded from one of the nameless 0nes. While there are times that I think a little more restraint could have delivered a tighter, more focused album, I like everything Ashbringer do here and I have no hesitation recommending it highly.