From the opening seconds of “Altars of the Flame,” I knew Ezkaton’s Sheen and Misery was going to be a special record. The mournful, melancholy guitar melody rises and threatens to overwhelm before a voice breaks through the tension. The cold narrator quotes from the 1984 film Children of the Corn, where Issac commands the children to kill Joseph at the behest of He Who Walks Behind The Rows, and I got lost in the story. When the album began in earnest, several minutes into the track, I was already hooked, sucked in, and ready for the full experience of the sophomore album from this most mysterious of Ukranian groups.
Ezkaton play a depressive sort of atmospheric black metal, leaning more towards the depressing than atmospheric side of things. Rather than using hazy, ill-defined chords that act more as a backdrop than a driving force, Ezkaton use their guitars as a force for good. Tremolos, power chords, and haunting leads are strengthened by an amazingly clear production that allows you to soak up every carefully-chosen note. The guitars on Sheen and Misery are an absolute force, invading your skull and dredging up every bit of sorrow you’ve ever felt and shining the Ukraine’s brightest spotlight on it. “Altars of the Flame,” “Wisdom,” and “Weave Your World” feature some of my new favorite guitar work for the genre, because it wears melancholy like a coat that can’t fully protect it from the cold. In that way, it reminds me of Ghost Bridage, whose similarly melancholic expression never fails to brighten up a troubling day. Ezkaton is very much the same.
If I was to categorize anything on Sheen and Misery as “hazy,” it would have to be the vocals. The anguished shrieks that decorate the album are incredible in how much feeling the vocalist can express in his incomprehensible, wild screams of anguish. I expected the style to become tiring after a while, but it never really gets a chance. For one thing, the vocals are an excellent compliment to the music. For another, the placement of the vocals is clever; take “Last Breath” as an example. Equal parts haunting, beautiful, and cold, the song is one of the few that only has so many spots where anguished male-banshee wails of pain could fit in. It’s also the song on the album with the fewest vocal lines. “Luring Needle” is similarly well-composed, highlighting the cathartic guitar riffs over vocals — because they aren’t needed. Musically, this is a great album, and its composer knows it.
The more subtle elements of Sheen and Misery really help it to stand out from its contemporaries. Simple, ethereal keys constitute most of the “atmospheric” side of the sound, evoking the latest Infera Bruo in catharsis and impact. “Land of Dishonest Rot,” “Last Breath,” and so much of the album is improved heavily through simple symphonic elements. They are never overpowering, never the focus of the song, but this album would not be the same without them. I also really enjoy the drumming on this record, which is unusual because it isn’t very impactful. Ezkaton aren’t looking to hit you hard and bash out your eardrums, merely to offer their songs enough support to convey their intended emotional impact. This means the drums are pushed a bit back into the mix, where the fills and transitions add their own small twists and embellishments that help each song to shine.
Sheen and Misery is an album I want to keep going. It is perhaps the only time I’ve listened to an album that is seventy-two minutes long and thought that its length might actually be a good thing. The clean production helps immensely with that, and while there is definitely some fat that could have been trimmed (“Intro To Part Two,” while nice as a break midway through, is a five-minute-long ambient track that definitely overstays its welcome), Ezkaton delivers a consistently cathartic black metal experience. It’s been a while since I’ve been so thoroughly drawn into a new release, but here it is: Sheen and Misery really resonates with me, and I will be enjoying it for many a dark day to come.