Dryad – The Abyssal Plain Review

When one considers the state of Iowa, one is unlikely to think of black metal. Be-masked hard rock radio metal? Yes. Black metal, no. Likewise, Iowa conjures images of corn fields, wind turbines, college football Saturdays and James Tiberius Kirk. But the ocean? Not unless you’re a paleontologist. You see, the verdant rolling hills of all those Grant Wood paintings were once covered by an enormous prehistoric inland sea. As a result, the place is absolutely lousy with fossils of trilobites and giant sea scorpions. I wonder if this was at least part of the inspiration for Iowa City, Iowa’s very own crusty black metal quartet Dryad as they were writing their debut full-length, the marine-themed The Abyssal Plain. Mining the ocean’s sunless depths for horrors both natural and metaphorical certainly makes for an unexpected debut by an unexpected Midwestern source, so let’s dive into these murky waters and hope we don’t come back up with the bends. 

There’s a deceptively broad palette of styles roiling under the grimy surface of The Abyssal Plain. Most identifiable are crust punk and traditional black metal, but there’s a good dose of raw black and dungeon synth as well. That said, vocalist/guitarist/synth, uh, -ist Claire Nunez’s key work is more sophisticated than your average dungeon dweller. And while not full-on raw, the production here is atmospherically claustrophobic, with plenty of reverb on Nunez’s sharp yelps to give that aquatic cavern feel. Speaking of, there are a couple moments when cavernous death metal creeps into the mix, as on “Bottomfeeder,” but the dingy black metal more often gives way to punk, as on “Loki’s Castle” or “Brine Pool Aberration.” The scorching “Trenches” even takes a swerve into straight d-beat, but that doesn’t mean this isn’t a black metal record through and through, with songs like “Pompeii Worm” delivering all the acidic black fury one could hope for.

The best trick Dryad pull on The Abyssal Plain is maintaining a balance between this sustained fury and the atmospherics required to properly pull off the album concept. It’s pointless to call out any particular song as an example because every track that isn’t a synth interlude sustains the same ramshackle, ears-pinned-back energy. These Iowans go hard, bringing an ideal mix of scuzzy punk swagger and black metal menace. This is the kind of energy you want to hear on a band’s debut; the kind you can’t buy with bigger budgets and better production three or four records into a career. Add to this the eerie synth work and occasional sound bites of Jacque Cousteau waxing poetic about the abyss that enhance rather than slow down the album flow and you’ve got a winning combination. It’s easy to imagine each interlude as a vignette showing the lair of some unspeakable bottom-dwelling beast stalking the inky depths.

The Abyssal Plain is a stylish album, meaning Dryad has come out of the gate with a well-developed style that they play with gusto. What it doesn’t have relative to this strong sense of style is songwriting highlights. The riffs are solid, but solidly utilitarian. The synth interludes are each enjoyable, but also interchangeable. “The Abyssal Plain,” “Pompeii Worm” and “Trenches” stand out slightly from the rest in memorability, but it took several listens for me to pick them out of the lineup. Separating good albums from the great ones usually comes down to songwriting. I enjoy Dryad’s songs, but I enjoy their style more. Once I can say the inverse of that, they’ll have something really special.

Philosophizing about criticism aside, this is a rip-roaring oceanic expedition of an album. It’s the kind you should listen to in one go, and at only 35 minutes, this is easily done. Having lived my entire life in the states surrounding Iowa, I consider it my backyard, and I’m pleased to find the Hawkeye State producing good metal music. I’ll be watching Dryad going forward.

Rating: 3.0/5.0
DR: 6 | Format Reviewed: 320 kbps mp3
Label: Prosthetic Records
Websites: dryad.bandcamp.com | facebook.com/dryad.us
Releases Worldwide: January 20th, 2023

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