I was on a hike recently, and while trekking through the forest, I stopped regularly to admire the magnificent trees. Up close, each was different, with idiosyncratic patterns, leaves, and scars. When I made it to the top of a nearby hill, however, and glanced over said forest, I was struck by the homogeneity. The individual trees, all so unique at first, looked identical from afar. I imagined, for a second, that this is (a) probably how our Overlord views his army of writers and (b) how black metal bands appear to fans of the genre. The constricting nature of the music and over-saturation by literally thousands of artists makes standing out very difficult. Enter Chilean band, Drimys Winteri, named after a particular type of tree typically found in Chile and Argentina. Excelsa Natura is the band’s first album. The question becomes, is there enough here to make you notice them in an already densely packed forest?
The name of the band; an illegible and somewhat pretentious logo; an album title that references nature; a cover showing untrammeled and untouched wilderness. You don’t have to be an AMG veteran to know we’re dealing with a traditional slice o’ atmospheric black metal here. Drimys Winteri follow closely in the footsteps of bands like Saor, Winterfylleth, and Wolves in the Throne Room in providing black metal that focuses on atmosphere rather than brute aggression. While all the traditional elements of the genre (tremolo picking, distorted guitars, screeched vocals) are present, the focus is on melody and harmony.
The good news is that when they get it right, Drimys Winteri bring the riffs but also manage to integrate them into well-composed, tight and consistently interesting tracks. Songs like “Orgullosa Naturaleza I (Verde Calma),” are catchy, thematically coherent and intelligent. “Orgullosa” alternates between mid-tempo atmospheric sections, furious blast beats, and harsh wails. But the same riff underpins most the song, so it all feels consistent and logical. And because of the pace and dynamics of the track shift, it doesn’t become wearying. That’s smart songwriting. Not all the songs fare as well, sadly. “Microcosmos Simbolico,” suffers from just a little too much repetition, giving the impression that the band was short on ideas. Elsewhere, on tracks like “Magico Velo Gris,” Drimys Winteri exhibit a knack for changing tempo between movements crisply and organically. As a result, both Excelsa Natura and the songs therein flow smoothly. At just over 40 minutes, it doesn’t succumb to the habit some bands have of not knowing when to stop—ahem, Evohé, ahem.
The real downside is that you’ve heard all of this before. Master of Muppets complained in his review of another atmoblack Chilean band that it had become indistinguishable from a host of others. The exact same accusation can be leveled at Drimys Winteri. From the riffs to the structure of the songs to the obligatory (and boring) “interlude,” there’s nothing new here. These guys are taking a well-honed formula and simply riffing on it, without any real attempts at true originality. Their take is intelligent and catchy, sure, but it lacks a truly personal stamp. Or, to put it another way, instead of dancing gingerly with their genre, you wish they would just grab it by the balls. Closer “Orgullosa Naturaleza II” is also a curious choice to end Excelsa Natura: it lacks the discipline of earlier tracks, and by ending so suddenly, offers no denouement for what has proceeded it. It feels as if Drimys Winteri got halfway through the song and just decided “Fuck it, we’re done.”
Excelsa Natura is an unoriginal album that’s executed reasonably well. The songs are generally interesting and well-composed, but these are not enough to overcome a strong sense of deja-vu. Because this is their first album, and the band members are clearly still establishing themselves, I’m happy to let the lack of originality slide (this time!). There is more than enough potential here and fans of the genre will find much to enjoy. It’s a fine enough album, but for a tree to stand out in a forest, it needs to be more than just “fine.” Drimys Winteri needs to find that something different to tower over its contemporaries.