One of the saddest things in music is the “almost there” album. It’s the album that has all the traits of something that should work, and yet it doesn’t. It’s the kid on the soccer team who is bad, but not bad enough to know he’s bad. It’s the guy in the friend group who everyone tolerates, but no one would be sad if he moved away. It’s the hundreds of albums that are released every year, met with a shrug at best, and are swiftly forgotten. After giving it ample chance to prove its worth, it seems Barshasketh‘s self-titled record is doomed to join these ranks.
It’s especially disappointing considering how much promise this band had. Formed in 2009, this formerly-New Zealand-now-Scotland-based quartet quite impressed me with 2015’s Ophidian Henosis, a grand and melodic black metal album that sounded like a more majestic version of Mgła. Others have been equally impressed with Barshasketh, comparing them to Taake, Sargeist, and even Deathspell Omega. In recent years, guitarist and vocalist “Krigeist” has been flexing his musical muscles throughout the underground, lending his talents to Belliciste and Svartgren while putting out music under his solo project, Bròn. It wasn’t unreasonable to think he’d bring a wealth of inspiration to Barshasketh‘s fourth full-length. Unfortunately, inspiration turns out to be exactly what this album is lacking.
Stylistically, Barshasketh is your stereotypical modern black metal album. Tracks are typically five or more minutes in length and follow unconventional structures, while the riffs that comprise them range from dissonant to melodic to atmospheric to everything in between. Unfortunately, most of these riffs aren’t particularly creative, nor are they put together in ways that make for compelling songs. Opener “Vacillation” is a prime example. Beginning with a waltzing guitar line, the song ambles between ideas and tempos without ever building tension, closing with a progression that tries to be searing and dramatic but remains underwhelming. Later songs like “Ruin I” and “Rebirth” largely follow suit, lacking notable riffs and arbitrarily shifting between ideas with little sense of purpose or destination.
No song on Barshasketh is outright good, though there are a few good moments within them. “Consciousness I” features distant melodies that recall the vastness of Wolves in the Throne Room, offering some welcome variety in the album’s first half. Its companion piece, “Consciousness II,” employs a snappy pace and a nice downcast riff before moving into eerie clean picking that evokes Thantifaxath. “Ruin II” slows to a halt in its second half, erupting into an enormous crawling melody that sounds like a giant insect in its death throes. Sadly, all these moments are notable mainly because of how banal everything else is. Rather than improving the album, they actually make it more frustrating, because they show the band had the potential to do much better. On the upside, the record is well-produced, with a clean modern sound that offers plenty of space for the bass to glide beneath the smooth guitars.
I really wanted to like Barshasketh, but at the end of the day the song quality is simply not there. Rather than write compelling compositions, Barshasketh obfuscate their lack of quality riffs in labyrinthine structures designed to fool unwitting black metal fans into thinking they’re worth exploring. In this way, the band are a wolf in sheep’s clothing: they possess an album cover, production job, and enough fleeting moments of inspiration to convince people they’re the next Gaerea, yet they’re a world away in terms of quality. Barshasketh feels like it wants so badly to join the modern black metal vanguard just as Henosis seemed poised to four years ago. Sadly, even possessing all the traits of something that should work doesn’t mean it actually works.