Be’lakor walks the same dark paths as Omnium Gatherum, Insomnium, and to a lesser extent, Swallow the Sun [Don’t forget At the Gates and Opeth – AMG], dooming them to inevitable comparisons to these bands. Fortunately for this Australian band, their third full length album, like their second, can hold its own in such company. Be’lakor takes the standard melodic death metal ingredients – growling vocals, catchy, often beautiful, melodies layered over crushing riffs, the judicious application of blast beats – and blends them into a near-perfect album. The attention to detail even extends to Costin Chioreanu’s gorgeous modification of Gabriel Ferrier’s Chaperon Rouge for the cover art, which evokes something genuinely creepy between the wolf and Red Riding Hood. The unholy twist on a familiar classic in the rich, saturated, dark colors of the Old Masters is the synesthetic equivalent of the music.
Like a non-dairy Amon Amarth, Of Breath and Bone is loaded with hooks and propulsive, sometimes unsettling, syncopated guitar rhythms, paired with haunting, evocative melodies worthy of Insomnium. Singer George Kosmas doesn’t reach quite the subterranean depths of Omnium Gatherum’s Jukka Pelkonen, but he makes up for it in expressiveness and agility. Cryptic lyrics imply worlds of backstory in the first half with great gothic imagery and epic monsters. The second half includes fully drawn stories of irretrievable loss (“In Parting” and “By Moon and Star”). With discipline worthy of Amorphis, Be’lakor resolutely holds all the individual elements subservient to the whole. Nothing is included simply because it’s cool—every piece is there because it’s what the song needs. Recurring themes within and among the tracks (even those with apparently self-contained stories) build coherence and dramatic tension throughout the entire running time. If I can find anything wrong with Of Breath and Bone (and I’m digging to even come up with this) it’s that some listeners could find this level of consistency constricting. At times, the individual tracks can seem to bleed into each other, leaving the listener with one very long song. I would happily listen to a 57-minute Be’lakor track, so it’s a pretty minor complaint.
The dedication to balance is apparent in the production, too. Neither squeaky clean nor too raw, the sound is thick and dense, allowing each instrument just enough room to breathe. If anyone gets shortchanged, it’s Steven Merry on the keys, who often is not just low in the mix, but missing entirely. When they do bring him out, though, as in the flutey-sounding keyboards on “To Stir the Sea” or the piano on “The Dream and the Waking,” he really shines.
Wasting no time on introductions, opener “Abeyance” jumps right in with pounding, attention-grabbing drumbeats. About a minute and a half in, clean guitar and a mournful bass line deepen the colors. “Absit Omen” begins more slowly with moody strings before launching into galloping Amon Amarth-style riffage. “To Stir the Sea” is a minute and half of classical guitar – a palate cleanser before the second half, and the point where the album goes from really-fuckin’-good to fuckin’ awesome. “In Parting” starts out with chugging guitars, builds until the vocals come in with a snarl, and never backs off until around 4:50 when classical guitar provides an injection of melancholia before the story thunders to its tragic, violent climax. Drawing in all of the repeating elements from the rest of the album, the cinematic final song, “By Moon and Star,” feels like the closure of a story arc, even while containing a complete story within itself.
After listening to it almost nonstop for the last two weeks, I’m still finding new things to love in Of Breath and Bone. A standout in a saturated field, Be’lakor has followed the depth and power of their first full length, Stone’s Reach, with a mature album of dark beauty. It rarely surprises, but always satisfies. If you have even a passing interest in melodic death metal, you are going to want this album, and once you have it, you are going to come back to it again and again.