Gaerea – Mirage Review

Gaerea have always felt a little bit different. Black metal as a genre sometimes sounds a bit staid and tired, but with Unsettling Whispers and Limbo, Gaerea brought something new to the table. There were no avant-garde antics, or the abandonment of the traditional song structure as we know it—the band was very much working within the black metal framework. Rather, there was a seriousness and intelligence behind the music which leant it real weight and intensity. Combined with a crushing atmosphere, both albums achieved what so many aim for, but fall short of: true catharsis. Limbo was a more ambitious effort than Unsettling Whispers, with longer songs and a cleaner (but more compressed) production. It catapulted Gaerea to the very top of the black metal genre. Now, these anonymous Portugese folk are back with Mirage, one of the most anticipated albums of the year. Is your top 10 about to be rearranged?

From the opening track, “Memoir,” it’s clear that Mirage represents no great stylistic changes for the band. If you weren’t on board with Gaerea before, there’s nothing here that will inspire you to jump back on. This is still black metal, played at a mostly mid-tempo pace, with few bells and whistles. The intense, almost depressive vocals again take center-stage, but the guitar work is crushing (almost doom-like) rather than ridiculously fast. The tracks on Mirage are generally shorter than those on Limbo, with the band clearly aiming to be leaner and meaner. Despite some parts of absolute ferocity, Mirage is also more delicate and subtle: there are intermittent sections where dissonance and melody shine through, providing an interesting counterpoint to the bleakness.

Mirage opens very strongly with “Memoir,” “Salve” and “Deluge” all picking up where Limbo left off. What becomes apparent from this trio is that Gaerea’s minor tweaks work very well. The slight glimmers of hope that punctuate the material (the triumphant end of “Deluge,” the galloping middle of “Arson”) are counterbalanced by some of the most ferocious music of the year. When Gaerea truly unleash (“Salve”, “Mirage”), there are very few bands who can match them. Importantly, Gaerea still have that ability to make you feel. The material here worms its way into your very marrow and the sense of devastation, loneliness and pain is as purifying as it’s ever been. Nothing, however, can prepare you for the magnificent “Laude,” that closes the album. The soaring melodies, the exquisite timing, the wonderful dynamics—this is Gaerea at its untouchable best. You will feel as if you’ve walked through fire and emerged triumphant on the other side.

And yet… and yet… a few hitches hold Mirage back from being an unqualified success. The production is too dense and compressed, which has the effect of suffocating the songs. This compression worked on Limbo when intensity was the name of the game. Mirage’s more delicate collection would have been better served with a bit more space to breathe. There are also cuts on Mirage that don’t stick as they should. While the singles are uniformly strong, the middle section contains “Ebb” and “Mantle,” which aren’t nearly in the same league (that they are punctuated by the wonderful “Mirage” certainly helps, though). This has the effect of bogging things down slightly, until the extraordinary “Laude” kicks things back up. So strong and devastating is the final track, however, that it highlights the weaknesses of some of what preceded it.

Mirage is extremely high-quality black metal from an excellent band. I was initially going to 4.0 this thing hard. I like that it’s more delicate and more melodic than Limbo. I prefer the shorter songs and glimmers of hope. There is still, unquestionably, that powerful sense of catharsis that Gaerea are such masters at. But the more I listened, the more I felt that Gaerea were playing it safe. And the more I got frustrated by the dip in the middle and the unnecessarily dense production. In many ways, Mirage is a great title for this collection. From afar, it’s everything you need and want, but the closer you get, the more you see that your initial impression was misleading. Frustrating in its brilliance, I still think Gaerea’s masterpiece is yet to come.

Rating: 3.5/5.0
DR: 4 | Format Reviewed: 320 kbps mp3
Label: Season of Mist
Websites: gaerea.bandcamp.com  |  facebook.com/gaerea
Releases Worldwide: September 23rd, 2022


Thus Spoke

If there’s one word that defines Gaerea‘s musical ethos, it’s catharsis. The cleansing release of powerful and painful emotions through climbing melodies, building percussion, and agonized vocals. Lamenting existence, suffering, humanity. Reaching out of the darkness with an outstretched hand accompanied by a final wailing tremolo. If that sounds really melodramatic, I apologize; I’ve been listening to Mirage quite a lot lately. I also had the pleasure of experiencing Gaerea live earlier this year, in a pleasingly dark, densely packed venue above a pub in North London. And let me just say, when it comes to dramatic commitment, they spare as little expense in performance on stage as they do in composing and recording. This, their third full-length, represents the (near) perfection of this dramatic approach, with songs that escalate to the greatest heights the band has ever achieved. I do not say that lightly. At the same time, it drags you along so relentlessly, mixing in such ire with its wretchedness, with not a mote of filler. And this makes for an album that’s not only astonishingly consistent but consistently exhilarating.

What makes Mirage so powerful is its palpable emotionality and tangible humanity that feel like the culmination of everything Gaerea has been so far. The spiritual fire that Unsettling Whispers and Limbo kindled is now an all-consuming blaze. It’s more than simply the anguished cries of the vocalist—so recognisable now—it’s the intensely evocative compositions themselves. The very human horrors of existential dread and suffering find their place in the form of a theme of isolation, in a place beyond life or death, because, as lead songwriter states “Nobody is truly real until they are alone.” This is channeled beautifully. It might be the descending guitar refrain on “Deluge” that really sounds like torrential rain. It might be the swirling rhythms on “Arson” reminiscent of dancing flames. But it is also the soaring climaxes across the board. It’s in the sweet sadness of a falling melody (“Mantle”). It’s in the urgently screaming tremolos that engulf with unreasonable intensity (“Salve,” “Ebb”). And it’s in the reverberating plucks and whispered vocals that give me chills in spite of the unseasonal warmth (“Memoir,” “Arson,” “Laude”).

If it were only a pattern of tension and release, you might be forgiven for disregarding Mirage as a (well-executed) formula. But it isn’t. In fact, even when you can be certain a climactic build-up is coming, it’s never predictable, and it’s always better than you expect. Gaerea fold atmosphere and feeling into every passage, creating more a shifting sands of multilayered pathos than a rocky climb to adjacent peaks. There are trade-offs between flurries of furious, yet somehow yearning, tremolos, and gasping, stumbling rhythms (“Ebb,” “Laude,” “Dormant”). And there are interplays between mournful, urgent, and downright epic melodies (“Deluge,” “Arson,” “Mantle”). In some ways, Gaerea do demonstrate the classical patience of the steady intensification, executed in their signature style of pronounced wails over impossibly escalating guitar (“Memoir,” “Mantle,” “Laude”). Yet you are absolutely never ‘waiting for it to get good,’ because the ebb and flow of driving, swaying rhythms, and soaring refrains is so infused with potent poignancy it sweeps you along irresistibly.

As with Gaerea‘s previous albums, Mirage is densely produced1, which amplifies the all-enveloping intense ambience it holds. When you listen all the way through—and you really should—it transports you. Some of you have possibly reached this point and are rolling your eyes so hard you can see through the back of your head. But this truly is evocative music. You don’t need to be particularly suggestible to feel the emotion behind the vortex of “Arson”‘s denouement, or “Mantle”‘s bittersweet, lamenting climax. I haven’t even gone into detail about the affective poeticism of the lyrics or the moving intrigue of individual song concepts—graciously provided by the band—that serve to heighten again the force with which this hits.

It may sound trite, but Gaerea really aren’t like the other black metal bands, and Mirage cements this reputation. Approaching even the sublime in its tragic beauty, it rages, dazzles, and engulfs. In brutal honesty, it floored me on the first playthrough alone, and I think it gets better every time. But don’t just take my word for it. If you have any care for music as heartrending as it is heavy, this is a must-listen. This is Gaerea‘s best album.


Rating: Excellent

Show 1 footnote

  1. Some will say it’s “too compressed,” but I think it’s perfect.
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