Celestial Season – The Secret Teachings Review

Talk about unexpectedly bumping into a long lost friend! Back in the 90s when the doom death movement was new and being driven by the “Peaceville Three”1, there was a lesser known Dutch group called Celestial Season trying to horn in on the grimly emo fun. I first encountered them when I bought their 1995 sophomore album Solar Lovers and ended up quite taken with their gloomy yet accessible style. There were some great moments and I even loved their rendition of Ultravox‘s classic 80s hit “Vienna.” After that I never heard from Celestial Season again. Imagine my surprise some 25 years later to see a new album floating in the promo sump, only to discover they actually had a 1997 followup to Solar Lovers called Orange that saw them shifting styles to something like a grungy Kyuss.2 The lineup responsible for their doom death period is now back together and they’ve crafted an hour-plus journey through the melancholy, the somber, and the strange titled The Secret Teachings. It’s quite an unusual release too, resurrecting the sound and spirit of the early 90s doom death scene then injecting all manner of unusual elements into the weepy goulash. It takes time to fully absorb, but the end product is quite fascinating and definitely original.

The new/olde lineup reintroduces itself in stunning fashion on nearly 9-minute opener “The Secret Teachings of All Ages.” It opens with delicate strings and soft piano notes, sounding very fragile. When the guitars finally appear they aren’t as heavy as expected, though they do convey that classic, gothic doom sound, and when death vocals appear alongside forlorn violins, it’s like the early days of My Dying Bride all over again. The song shifts from soft to semi-heavy, but never gets extreme. The riffs are mournful and everything is kept funerary, but always restrained. That’s the template for the entirety of the album. This is not a heavy release in the traditional sense, based around downcast moods rather than crushing riffs and brutal vocals. Songs like “For Twisted Loveless” and  “The Ourobouros,” do work as depressive doom pieces however, with strings, piano and assorted extraneous elements percolating through their core. “Long Forlorn Tears” is much the same and quite gorgeous in it’s depressive mopery, until it shifts abruptly into butt-shaking hippie rock at the midpoint, replete with funky guitar jams and more cowbell than you’d expect on a doom death platter.

Things get weirder from there, with Middle Eastern and world music influences appearing on later cuts then scampering away. “Amor Fati” relies on dramatic spoken word segments in lieu of vocals and the music drifts from sullen doom to sections Iron Maiden might have included in their 10-plus minute wank-o-thons, and on to post-metal noodling with African percussion along for the ride. It works because the band is highly talented and able to stitch all the pieces together into an erudite musical Frankenstein. “Lunar Child” is an awkward pairing of death doom and rock and though it’s ungainly, it wins you over, concluding with some chilling tremolo volleys that borrow from A Swarm of the Sun‘s dour output. Penultimate track “A Veil of Silence” is essentially a 7-minute free-form guitar jam and it’s one of the coolest things I’ve heard in a long time, featuring a big Hexvessel vibe. Closer “Red Water” sounds like both The Cranberries and Mandylion era The Gathering showed up to help on a beautiful, subdued piece that sticks with you. What a long, strange trip this album is! For all the weirdness and creativity, the album is a bit too long. The presence of 3 short interludes is part of the problem, though they’re all well done. Not every song works either, as “They Saw It Come From the Sky” features a recurrent lead that I find irritating and distracting. I hesitate to say this piece or that should’ve been cut however, because this feels like a uniquely unitary, organic creation, but some may struggle to stay attuned for the full hour.

Music-wise this is a lavish feast. The cast of characters involved are all talented musicians and they let their creativity flow freely across the material. Though still anchored in metal, this is often a gauzy, ephemeral listen, full of diverse moods and vibes. It requires you to absorb it as a whole, and sampling random tracks won’t give you the full story about what the album contains. The guitar-work by Pim van Zanen and Olly Smit is often breathtaking and stunningly beautiful. Their playing on “A Veil of Silence” alone is worth the album price, and the sheer amount of diverse styles they dabble in over the album’s runtime is heroic. Stefan Ruiters provides the “extreme” vocals and does a fine job though he never really lets himself stray too deeply into death nastiness. He hovers at a brooding snarl instead, never overpowering the oftentimes soft goth-tinged music. Jason Köhnen’s percussion stands out as it’s much more than simple kit-work. Wood blocks, and other interesting tools are commonly used and I find myself paying far more attention to the percussion than I usually do.

Since I never expected to hear from Celestial Season again, The Secret Teachings is the best kind of surprise – a comeback that’s not the least bit derivative while still offering aspects of what I loved about the band’s early days. This won’t be everyone’s cup of tea, but for those looking for a different approach to doom death, where creativity is given free reign, take a chance and get some teachings.

Rating: 3.5/5.0
DR: 8 | Format Reviewed: 192 kbps mp3
Label: Burning World Records
Websites: celestialseason.bandcamp.com | facebook.com/celestialseason
Releases Worldwide: October 23rd, 2020

Show 2 footnotes

  1. Paradise Lost, My Dying Bride and Anathema.
  2. Two albums in a similar vein followed, both of them pretty interesting, and they called it quits in 2001.
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