I’m always fascinated by bands that could have been. Not “could have been famous,” but could have been anything. They’re the bands that muddle about in the underground, release an EP or two, and then fade into the ether without ever releasing anything again. For years Chrome Waves were one of those bands. Formed in 2010 by famed American black metal musician Jeff Wilson (formerly of Abigail Williams, Wolvhammer, and Nachtmystium) and drummer Bob Fouts (formerly of The Gates of Slumber and Apostle of Solitude), the group released a self-titled post-black metal EP in 2012 before going totally silent. It was unfortunate as the EP was quite good, eschewing the style’s typical melodrama in favor of grounded riffs that recalled a more understated version of An Autumn for Crippled Children. Seven years later, the band has recruited vocalist James Benson (Amiensus) for their long-awaited full-length debut, A Grief Observed. But post-black metal ain’t what it used to be—are Chrome Waves still welcome on today’s cynical shores?
It turns out that’s not an issue, as Waves aren’t really post-black metal anymore. The band now refer to themselves as “post/alt metal,” which in practice seems to mean a mix of black metal and post-punk. Blast beats are entirely absent on Grief, their place filled by simple, assertive beats which only occasionally break into quicker pattering. Riffs are basic progressions that carry the requisite aura of sadness, embellished by synthesizer-based ambiance and violin flourishes that recall a more tasteful version of So Hideous. The most similar acts I can think of are A Pregnant Light and the defunct French collective Amesoeurs, a comparison furthered by the roughly equal mix of clean and harsh vocals. Opener “Burdened” shows this blend from the start, alternating passages of soaring yet faint singing with verses of curdled rasps.
Waves are at their best on “Past the Lights” and “Predatory Animals,” with each riding peppy verses into refrains that contain surprisingly catchy and memorable vocal hooks. While the chorus of “Lights” alternates singing with rasps, “Animals” constructs its refrain from harsh vocals, rhymed lyrics, and a twirling guitar line, making for one of the most memorable moments on the album. The title track rises to almost the same heights, with its nine-minute length built on a recurring cleanly-picked guitar line that evokes the cold desperation of Swallow the Sun. While this and other songs here are quite repetitive, the riffs are effective enough that this never becomes a negative, even with these six tracks averaging over seven minutes in length.
Sadly there are a few flaws. Aforementioned “Burdened” is a solid track but I can’t shake the feeling that it goes straight from buildup to extended outro without ever delivering the climax it seems to promise. Likewise, the final two tracks—”Take Another Sip” and “Open Casket”—are spacier and less memorable than their predecessors, a problem aggravated by the weird tendency for the guitars to blur into the synths at some points throughout. In fact, the production as a whole is a bit strange, with a slightly muddled sound that somehow still retains a high dynamic range and cultivates a suitably dreary atmosphere. The raspy vocals remind me of Vattnet Viskar’s Settler in both their delivery and forward placement in the mix, while the singing is pushed further back and faintly recalls John Haughm’s cleans on Agalloch‘s Marrow of the Spirit.
Minor issues aside, A Grief Observed is an enjoyable album that I’m glad finally saw the light of day. While Waves would do well to write more songs like “Lights” and “Animals” in the future, no track here is worth skipping, as even the final two offer a plaintive reprieve after the more direct cuts earlier in the album. If nothing else, the wonderfully somber guitars, skilled mix of clean and harsh vocals, and trembling desperation of the whole thing1 are enough to keep this in my rotation. Fans of Sun Devoured Earth, A Pregnant Light, and Amesoeurs are sure to enjoy, as is anyone looking for a unique and oddly compelling take on black metal. At the end of the day, Chrome Waves were one band bold enough not to leave fans wondering what could have been. I’m pleased to report the results are far from disappointing.