Genre tags such as progressive and avant garde are kind of paradoxical terms in metal. Surely something truly progressive or avant garde should traverse the outer fringes of musical expression, bringing to the table a metal forged of fearless, arcane exploration? Often that’s not the case – those terms are in many ways boxes only slightly larger than thrash, death, and other tags of old. Does the anticipated third album of England’s Code break free of these restraints? Despite its high-minded ambition and obvious attention to craft, Augur Nox doesn’t quite explore territory uncharted by the likes of progressive extreme metal giants such as Enslaved, Arcturus and Opeth.
Like other so-called progressive black metal groups, Code is only black metal by association circa 2013. Augur Nox is a lush, modern record that ostensibly shares more sonic characteristics with Tool than anything resembling black metal. It’s more like dark hard rock in many ways, lacking much in the way of menace or aggression. Instead, tracks like “Ecdysis” and “Glimlight Tourist” gush with monochrome shades of Enslaved and are seasoned with a bit of Opethian melodrama to (un)sweeten the deal.
The songs waste little time with ambient meddling and vacant soundscapes, but the record is anything but immediate. Obvious hooks are largely absent; and as good as the individual songs are, the record flows from beginning to end like a film. Songs come and go like scenes in a movie, starting and stopping without much resolution. Even stand-out songs like “Glimlight Tourist” and “The Lazarus Chord” prefer to wander, yearn and explore rather than to settle into a groove.
The musicians give a deft performance and one that’s refreshingly restrained, even apprehensive, barring some fairly gorgeous lead guitar on “The Lazarus Chord,” the ending of which sports a classy guitar solo that burns through the overcast grey like shimmering city lights through a blanket of fog. No one musician overpowers the other – guitars, bass and drums interlock and play off one another like a living organism to create a huge, thick sound.
This gives newcomer vocalist Wacian plenty of opportunity to shine with impassioned, expressive clean vocals alongside more generic black metal rasps; his airy, yet forceful singing is a stand-out performance on the album (and bear an eerie resemblance to Garm’s vocals on the last two Arcturus’s albums he performed on). It’s hardly a virtuoso performance, but what Wacian appears to lack in raw technical ability he makes up for in arguably more important domains of expressiveness and versatility, seamlessly communicating menace, beauty and awe alike. For a specific example, check out the opening couple of lines introducing “Glimlight Tourist” – ‘Ciphers unleashing throngs from a blazing throat Swallows of sulphur, swallows of sanctuary’s hope In misted trains arranged Spores in suspended rain Course under spell On predator wings.’
Esoteric? Or just plain vague? Either way Code certainly makes a point out of being refreshingly literate in the lyric department, as one can see by that verbose little nugget. Wacian delivers these obtuse verses – themselves full of vivid, cinematic imagery – with plenty of necessary panache and dark melodrama. While the vocals stand out as a high point, I can’t help but wish the songs on Augur Nox were a little bit more…daring, perhaps? For all its apparent attention to craft, there is a certain heavy-handed self-consciousness (along with its conspicuous lack of memorable riffs or hooks) to the record that makes it tough to love in a playing field over-saturated with “prog” bands. Maybe it’s time for Code to throw in a saxophone or hurdy-gurdy to spice things up a little?