I used to dislike female vocalists in general. As I’d mostly been exposed to them through either shitty pop music or shitty Nightwishcore, I simply never felt any emotional connection regardless of their technical skill. The turnaround came from outside of metal with Florence + The Machine, and since then I’ve found a new appreciation for womanly voices, particularly in male-dominated sub-genres, with bands like Madder Mortem and Messa featuring high on my Best Ever lists. Burning Gloom (formerly named My House On Trees) are a doom-sludge band from Milan, and they have female vocals as well, something that may be rarer in sludge than in any other sub-genre sans perhaps thrash (top of my head can only name SubRosa.) But do they have what it takes to fight the patriarchy?
Abso-fucking-lutely they do! Amygdala, named after the part of the brain that controls fear, is a dense and claustrophobic piece of sludge metal that nestles comfortably under the skin. It starts off with the harsh, raw blast of “The Tower II” and cruises to an excellent, haunting halt with “Obsessive-Compulsive Disorder.” The songwriting is uniformly strong; here is a band that knows how to grow and expand upon the seed of a song and evolve toward an explosive climax. “Eremite” is a strong early example, with the instrumentation more forceful and jagged in later choruses, eventually spiraling out of control amid harsh shrieks and wailing guitars. It’s a recurring template, but one that ensures every song primes you for the blow, and never fails to deliver. But the structure never feels formulaic due to the variety of moods and textures on display.
The instruments move like a single unit, an infernal tribal machine, through bottom-heavy riffs and small, distinct embellishments from industrial, post-metal and even an ominous desert-rock riff for “Nightmares.” The drums are restrained, but primed for maximum impact when they hit, and the bass lays a heavy foundation that meshes well with the guitarplay. But Laura Mancini on vocals is the blade that cuts through the meat. Her timbre would be similar to Pat Benatar if she was guesting on a Messa album. Sharp and emotive, she’s the poltergeist in every track, yet also its victim, as she croons and whispers in fear one moment, then shrieks in rage and despair the next. Only the latter style finds her sometimes short on power, and lacking the contrast her cleans provide, her screams tending to get buried in the evocative avalanche of riffs.
Only the production doesn’t live up to the rest of the album. The master is far too dense, not an uncommon sight in sludge-doom, and the instrumentation is squeezed together too tightly as a result. This certainly bears the substantial part of the blame for Mancini’s screams drowning in the guitars. The mix is better than the master, the bass thrumming heavily underneath the guitars, the vocals not overpowering the instruments, but the bricked master makes the balance harder to appreciate. The silver lining, however, is that the crushing of the music contributes to the oppressive, claustrophobic feel of the album. That’s not nearly enough to make me endorse the production, but it blunts my anger over another great album crushed in the studio.
In spite of the sound issues, Amygdala is a powerful statement from the newly renamed band. Thundering riffs, enticing songwriting that shows progression without filler, and a versatile set of pipes combine into an album that invites the listener to return often and eagerly. The energy is dense and suffocating, the subject of fear palpable in different ways on every track. The final track, dealing with a violent stalker, ends on a soft and haunting note as Mancini croons: He knows you / He will take your life. Burning Gloom‘s transformation leaves you wanting more.