The difference a single instrument can make is incredible. Barring the obvious candidates, like voice and drums, you can change an entire band’s sound with a single addition. Nightwish makes standard power metal until you add in the orchestrations. Wilderun play pretty neat symphonic metal, but throw in a mandolin and see how that changes things. It’s these small flourishes that help many of our favorite bands to win the battle against homogeneity. In the spheres of death-doom, Burial in the Woods seek similar uniqueness with their debut effort, Church of Dagon. Based on Lovecraft’s Cthulu Order of the same name, this mysterious group puts out what might be a generic slab of death-doom — and then they added a church organ.
The church organ makes sense, of course, and its flourishes add a haunting, ecclesiastical dimension to Church of Dagon that sets it apart to my ears. Immediately, the opening strains of “Forbidden Pages” seek to dwarf the listener beneath the grand organ, painting a picture that is equal parts reverential and foreboding. By nature, the organ is an instrument that dominates, and this goes double for church organs. Burial in the Woods knows this, and their use of the instrument is sparing and clever. The transition from organ-backed roaring to quiet acoustic picking in “Forbidden Pages” is a powerful one. It is in the next track, “Ecclesia Dagoni,” however, that the instrument really shines. While “Forbidden Pages” leans more towards the foreboding aspect of the sound, utilizing shrieking leads and heavy roaring, “Ecclesia Dagoni” takes on the reverential side. A powerful, creepy, and largely instrumental song, it showcases the fusion between death, doom, and hymnal music surprisingly well, especially when the chanting starts, and never overstays its welcome.
If any element of Church of Dagon does overstay its welcome, it would be closing cover “Gölgeler Alemi.” At twenty-four minutes, it is almost exactly as long as the preceding half of the album. Now, there are very few things that make me willing to tolerate a twenty-minute-long “death” anything. But this monster of a song takes all of the best elements of Burial in the Woods and expertly fuses them together. The repeated themes and ideas help it to feel cohesive. It brings out the squealing leads, the mightier-than-thou organs, quiet acoustic passages, and the most memorable riffs on the album. The vocals, while sparing, are similarly effective. While the roars, here as throughout, are a little subdued, the chanting is stellar. Despite this, twenty-four minutes is still long. Often, I find my mind wanders halfway through — but being lost in this labyrinth of fuzz and worship is still a remarkable experience. I always come back by the end though, when genuinely fearful shrieking takes hold.
As I scan over the last three paragraphs, it occurs to me that I’ve scarcely mentioned the guitars. Shame on me. This is a metal album after all, and one labeled as death-influenced doom at that. Guitars are a big part of that label. So I could wish they were a bigger part of this album as well. The production is very fuzzy, and just a little bit compressed. As a result, the rhythm guitars are a bit muted, while the lead lines shriek and squeal at the very front of the mix. The riffing, unfortunately, lacks impact, something I could forgive if it was just a bit more interesting. As is, I remember the way most of the songs made me feel more than anything else. For me, the most memorable parts of the album are less riff-oriented; the chanting at the end of “Ecclesia Dagoni,” and in the middle of “Gölgeler Alemi” is outstanding. I remember organ-and-guitar-lead duos in the former and the acoustic break in the latter. But I don’t really remember the riffs.
I came very close to rating Church of Dagon a half-point higher than I did because it really is a very good album. Despite my personal preferences against the production and riffing, the fusion of grand, ecclesiastical1 music, powerful doom, and the death metal feel of the whole make for a unique and great listening experience. Though it could be more memorable, it’s still a great way to pass fifty minutes, lost in the dark, cryptic grandeur.