Stepping out of your comfort zone is often a healthy thing. Slither away from the soft bed you know into the cold bath of the unknown and you might find yourself with a new affection you never knew existed. When it comes to metal, by and large, this means black metal for me. Though I’ve run into the occasional band that surprises me with articulate frostiness, such as Mistur and Gaerea, the genre as a whole tends to linger outside my grasp. So here I am once more, venturing into the obtuse murk, with the harsh glare of Essenz, a German outfit of cryptically abbreviated band members. With splatters of doom and atmospheric drone in the mix, just to make things even more uncomfortable, Manes Impetus is sure to make me feel terribly unheimlich.
Essenz don’t play nice and they don’t make things easy. Structurally, their music can be best described as labyrinthine; you’ll regularly find familiar passages, but you’re never quite sure where they fit into the whole. Regular tempo changes create the feeling of being lost in the woods, the buzzsaw guitars either swarming around you with malevolent riffs or pressing down with the weight of the grave. The vocals hover around the border between growl and scream, exuding evil with every breath. The band creates plenty of variety with these elements, as well as the atmospheric drone that pops up every now and then. When used in moderation, these soundscapes are both a breather from the sonic assault as well as an exercise in claustrophobia through sound. The overall experience is pleasantly unpleasant, a good place for black metal to be.
That is, however, as long as the drone elements are used in moderation. The penultimate track, “Sermon to the Ghosts,” is an almost 10-minute exercise in patience as it never lifts the veil of ominous sounds that have little to do with actual music. I’m reminded of how effectively Messa employed drone interludes, particularly on Belfry; they function by creating space, giving the music room to breathe, then setting the tone for what’s to come. That effect stops working when the drone does not let up, and it’s difficult to justify putting the carefully composed metal on hold for so long in favor of recordings of an empty hallway. It may very well be that I am simply not its intended audience, and enthusiasts of both black metal, doom, and drone will eat this right up, but to me, the final third of Manes Impetus is like putting the album on pause for a long time before proceeding to the finale.
I find this a shame on multiple levels because, in contrast to most black metal I’ve encountered, I have very few complaints about the rest of the record. The riffs don’t lean solely on endless tremolo, but draw from adjacent genres for inspiration, like the effective doom atmosphere on “Unfolding Death” or the addictive hook on the snappy “Amortal Abstract.” The bass has an actual role to play, even taking the spotlight halfway through “Randlos Gebein.” Furthermore, the production avoids the cliché of lo-fi sounding eviler, instead opting for a reasonably dynamic take and a solid mix, that doesn’t smash the different layers together nor foregoes the traditional ‘cold’ feel of the instrumentation.
On a track-by-track basis, most of Manes Impetus is a solid record of sharp hooks, plodding doom and oppressive claustrophobia. With the drone elements more spread across the album, it would have been an enjoyable platter of dark delights. Alas, reviewing the album as a whole, “Sermon” kills the momentum and puts everything on hold for far too long, creating a tedium that looms over every spin and effectively torpedoing a perfectly fine black metal record. You may be able to enjoy 10 minutes of spooky sounds halting all momentum more than I do, or you may remove the track altogether and be left with 47 minutes of enjoyable, well-written and well-produced black metal. But since Essenz didn’t do the latter, I cannot ignore the gaping hole in Manes Impetus.