I have a soft spot for things I spot in the promo bin that are self-released. I think this is probably a function of my own complete lack musical talent, which means I already hold musicians in high regard and anyone who has the drive to self-release a record is a little bit amazing to me—the downside to this foible is, of course, that there is no vetting or editing on self-released records. If an album is not only self-released but also branded as post-something, then I have no qualms at all shoving the smaller-statured reviewers out the way to get my hands on it. Having trampled several people underfoot, however, I very nearly threw Return to Earth, the debut from Gates to the Morning, back. Let’s be honest, this seven-piece from New Jersey have done themselves absolutely no favors with that god awful cover art.
I’m pleased though that Return to Earth stuck to the sandpapery skin of my palm, as it’s actually pretty good. Gates to the Morning veer between bursts of out and out black metal, ethereal multi-instrumental sections—featuring a lever harp, among other things—and reasonably solid post-metal. It took a few listens for me to place what this concoction reminded me of but having clicked in, I can’t unhear it: Opeth‘s Morning Rise. It was partway through Gates to the Morning‘s “Chapel Perilous,” a curious echoing tune at times reminiscent of Gregorian chanting, that I finally got it: this could have come straight out of Opeth‘s “Black Rose Immortal,” you know, the bit about nine minutes in with the violin? Come on, don’t look at me like that, you know exactly what I’m fucking talking about! And as soon as I made that connection, I started to see a lot of other similarities between the two.
That is not to suggest that Gates to the Morning are ripping off Morning Rise, they aren’t (nor is this anywhere near as good) but the similarities are striking. And that is generally a good thing. Return to Earth opens gently enough, with an acoustic build, gradually introducing synths and more, and on my first spin I was gearing myself up to be quite bored and disappointed. But then a big, powerful post-metal riff drops as “Terra Incognita” kicks in, with some decent clean vocals over the top, before this suddenly vanishes mid-track in favor of straight-up black metal, blast beats, guttural howled vocals and all. This theme continues throughout the album, with lightning-fast changes of style holding the listener’s attention well. Highlight “Crestfallen,” probably the heaviest thing on here, opens with harsh black metal before, about halfway through, a delicate melody is woven in, which then diverts the track off into almost melo-death territory and female vocals are introduced. Aside from the Opeth connection already discussed, Return to Earth also has elements of Devin Townsend, for instance on “Freezing Sundials,” and very early Katatonia (think For Funerals to Come), among others.
Although Gates to the Morning draw on a lot of influences I like, Return to Earth is not an album free from problems. Its 59 minutes could easily have been cut to around 45 and the record would be much better for it. There are several utterly forgettable songs, contributing little or nothing to the overall package—the saccharine, almost-ballad “My Star,” utterly pointless “Haunting the Third Chamber,” and meandering “Two Winters” all being good examples. Disappointingly, two of the tracks where Gates to the Morning most effectively blend their varied influences are buried right at the end of the 14-track album, by which point a sense of fatigue had usually set in for me. It’s also a shame that the production, which is generally fine throughout, lets them down a bit on some the black metal passages, with the drums in particular sounding flat and compressed, to the point where I was reminded of what they did to poor Frost on Satyricon‘s Now, Diabolical.
Overall, Gates to the Morning show considerable promise here. Not everything they attempt works, with some of the softer edges to their sound not landing for me. Equally, the sudden switches of style are sometimes spot-on, demanding your attention, but in other places, it just feels disjointed. The ambition on Return to Earth and the band’s willingness to attempt something a bit different is welcome though. Without bowling me over, Gates to the Morning have delivered something that interested and surprised me, which I can see myself returning to on occasion. But that cover art, seriously…1