Ethereal Darkness arrives here today not because some fast talking, over promising PR firm submitted the promo while breathlessly proclaiming it the next big thing. It’s here because the mysterious and unnamed man behind this solo project submitted it to us via our contact form and the music did all the talking from there. Operating out of the shadows of Belgium, Smoke and Shadows is the act’s debut, featuring a kind of melodic death mixed with black metal and sadboy overtones. It shares a lot of similarities with melancholy maestros like Insomnium, Rapture and especially Before the Dawn, and like those established acts, strives for the perfect marriage of heaviness, mood and atmosphere. And for an upstart rookie release, Smoke and Shadows is surprisingly successful in finding that elusive sweet spot.
The dark, dreary mood is set up beautifully by attention grabbing instrumental opener “Rivers,” which utilizes sullen chord structures that blossom into beautiful trilling leads all steeped in pathos and bleak tidings of existential misery. It heavily references the guitar-work of Tuomas Saukkonen (Before the Dawn, Black Sun Aeon, Wolfheart), and this could fit in seamlessly on any of the man’s releases. From there you plunge into “The Dreaming Soul,” which introduces a bit of Amon Amarth styled Viking machismo and chest thumping battle riffage while carefully maintaining the overarching gloom at the grim core of the music. This delicate balancing act pervades much of Smoke and Shadows, with the music carefully threading the needle between heavy, haunting and depressing.
Effective death metal roars pair well with melodic trilling across “The Light That Fades” and “Forgotten Shadows” as well placed introspective interludes accentuate the heavier moments nicely. “Apocalypse in Your Mind” is more depressive and restrained, creating a very hypnotic effect that carries you along as the heaviness ebbs and flows. Black metal influences creep in as the album progresses, with “Shrouded in Mourn” (forgivable ESL fail) and mammoth 10-minute closer “Flow Into the Sea” featuring well-executed icy trem riffs, blast beats and evil screeching. Kudos are especially deserved for making the long-winded closer as listenable and enjoyable as it as, since the 10-minutes does indeed flow and feels much shorter. In fact, the album’s 51 minutes feels like it passes in a blur, and I find myself spinning it from start to finish and going back for more.
Though there’s nary a bad track to obstruct the album’s enjoyment, there are some issues. The production and especially the mix are a bit rough. It’s far from unlistenable, but the guitars can sound too forward while the vocals sometimes drop too far back, especially when effects pedals are employed. Another issue is the drumming. I’m 99% sure it’s programmed, and it’s flat, and unimaginative with an overly processed sound, keeping time with little additional involvement. There’s not much in the way of a bass presence either. These usually dire problems are redeemed by highly impressive guitar-work however, making the album enjoyable despite its mixological shortcomings. The mystery musician carefully loaded the album with first-rate riffs, melodies and solos that are both gripping and evocative. Every song is carried by interesting leads that deliver righteous emotion and mood, keeping the listener fully locked in. The man knows his way around a riff and is also quite skilled at constructing songs that maximize their relative impact. He’s not shabby as a vocalist either, managing both death and blackened vocals very well.
Smoke and Shadows is quite an engrossing, addictive debut by a new and unheralded one-man band. Production issue aside, Ethereal Darkness is operating at a high level right out of the gate, crafting mountains of mood and rivers of glum atmosphere. There’s a lot of potential here, and I’m very interested to hear what comes next for this project. If you appreciate dark, morose melodeath, you should definitely give this a serious spin or three. A happy surprise for early 2019.