Hey kids. I’ve been away a while. Real life grabbed me by the collar and I couldn’t ignore it for fear of fucking up my future. But unlike your father who left for those cigarettes 10 years ago, I have returned. And what a way to return – the new Be’lakor, the critically–acclaimed melodeath darling child from Down Under. Much has been said of their slightly more grandiose approach to Insomnium Gatherum-type melodic death metal and all the same things can be said again. The guttural vocals and blasting riffs underpin soaring guitar harmonies, spanning compositions which are becoming more distinct and nuanced as they’ve developed their sound. Unfortunately, while Vessels is still great, Be’lakor no longer comes without real caveat.
Be’lakor have always been that melodeath band that I found to be if not more progressive, certainly more expansive and ambitious in their arrangements and writing. Vessels is very much a logical step down that path from Stone’s Reach and Of Breath and Bone. Use of acoustic guitars in conjunction with electric is liberal and there are more sounds drawn into their repertoire this time around. The guitar tone and riff from 6:05 of “Withering Strands” evokes Gorguts, and is layered with light choral elements. The reverb-soaked, down-tuned intro to “Roots to Sever” is atmospheric in a different way to what they’ve undertaken previously. But best of all is “An Embers Arc” which is the album highlight and demonstrates a few of the new textures at play here. It opens with a pretty acoustic melody which is gradually embellished with the deft drum-work of new skins-thumper Elliott Sansom – his work is truly exceptional and contributes to a rhythm section which is my favorite part technically. The high-pitched trilling followed by blackened blasting from 2:30 reeks of a new black metal influence and the development from there reminds me of Barren Earth. The lush acoustics at 6:35 are lovely and a great pre-finale reprieve.
It must be noted that this dynamism necessarily precludes outright pace quite frequently. There are fast passages but it’s a slower record than is typical of melodeath. I don’t think this is to their detriment but if you’re dependent on constant energy then this may not be preferable. This is taken a mite far on “The Smoke of Many Fires” which feels somewhat disjointed on account of its variation. This may, however, be general fatigue as the record splits just 8 tracks across a run-time approaching an hour – and it’s the last.
Compounding this, there are fewer stand-out moments. Be’lakor have always required more time to consume and appreciate compared with shorter, sharper, more melodic death metal, on account of their somewhat progressive embroidery. The passing of more time may change my mind but I’ve spun this a lot on account of how their previous records grew on me so I don’t think so. The quality is still very high and it flows well but there are fewer bits which make me pert with excitement [Like…Neil Peart? – Steel Druhm].
The album’s production is serviceable – but such expressive and dynamic music warrants expressive and dynamic mastering. While their music has updated since 2007, the production very much hasn’t. Though this was forgivable previously, the subtler compositions and softer passages characterizing the band’s development would sparkle if afforded a wider aural spectrum. Moreover, there’s a rough edge to everything which I’m sure is intentional but I believe a more delicate, balanced mix and tones would befit the music better. The guitars are unashamedly modern which is fine but the kick drum rubs me the wrong way and backing keyboard layers can get lost in the muddle. What’s here is as it’s always been but the production should develop with the song-writing.
If I’ve spent a bit too much time being a bit too negative, allow me to clarify: Vessels is still a fantastic album by an eminently talented group of musicians and song-writers. It still comes highly recommended if you’ve enjoyed their previous work or that of other, more long-winded melodeath bands such as Insomnium. But I found there to be a slight dip in quality and the issues slightly more noticeable this time around.