If there’s a more promising band out there than Harakiri for the Sky, I don’t know of them. Formed in 2011, this Austrian duo first came to my attention with 2014’s Aokigahara, whose crisp, riffy take on post-black metal was a welcome change from the Alcesty haziness overflowing the genre. My love affair continued with 2016’s III: Trauma, a terrific album that narrowly missed a spot on my year-end list with its lush, gorgeous melodies. Since then Harakiri’s gifted songwriting and unique style have built a rabid fanbase (including both myself and Master of Muppets), making Arson one of my most anticipated records of the year. Arriving just 20 months after Trauma, this fourth full-length shows vocalist/lyricist “J.J.” and band mastermind “M.S.” joined by studio drummer Kerim Lechner (Septicflesh) to craft another hour-plus ode to despair and melancholy. But does Arson hit like a Molotov or fizzle like a torch dropped in a Ghost Bath?
As probably expected given the pre-release tracks, Arson largely adheres to the “ain’t-broke-don’t-fix-it” philosophy. Nominally black metal, Harakiri continue to combine the prettiness and vastness of their “post-y” peers with a riffiness and driving sense of melody that’s more reminiscent of Insomnium than anything Deafheaven have coughed up. This makes them feel direct and active rather than sappy and atmospheric, and fortunately, Arson upholds this tradition in fine form. Take ostensibly Twin Peaks-inspired opener “Fire, Walk with Me,” whose swift beats and charging rainwater melodies climax in a lovely chorus lead that reminds me of Trauma’s excellent “Funeral Dreams.” It’s a strong and emotional start, and follow-up “The Graves We’ve Dug” maintains this standard by evoking Pale Folklore-era Agalloch with snappy drumming, squealing leads, and quick guitar lines that bring to mind “Hallways of Enchanted Ebony.”
It’s soon clear this formula of “clean melodies over snappy mid-paced rhythms” makes up the bulk of Arson’s 67 minutes, and while that’s not necessarily a bad thing, the results aren’t always so convincing. “You Are the Scars” again attempts to evoke Folklore but falls short with somewhat more generic riffing and a bloated 10-minute runtime.1 While more interesting with its acoustic intro and searing leads, “Heroin Waltz” faces similar woes, dancing about for 10 minutes without landing on anything as memorable as Trauma‘s average cut.
And really, that’s my biggest gripe with Arson: whereas nearly every song on the last album featured at least one iconic riff or melody, most of these 7 tracks feel largely devoid of standout moments. While there’s still plenty of good ideas, there’re much less great ones, and on the whole, these tracks are both less immediate and push fewer boundaries than their predecessors.2 On the plus side, the production is as potent as before, with the same clear modern sound that places all elements in the foreground, from the throttling bass drums to the sharp, smooth guitars. Likewise, J.J. sounds just as powerful as ever, with his anguished rasp delivering such great lines as “The harder you struggle – the tighter the noose!” in aforementioned “Fire.”
Of course, it’s M.S.’s guitars that are the real highlight, and in addition to delivering a rich soundscape and plenty of enjoyable riffs, he also crafts a few off-kilter moments to keep things interesting. After its sluggish opening, “Stillborn” kicks in with a rapid folk lick that sounds like a black metal version of Korpiklaani. It’s totally bizarre but somehow works. Likewise the brief forest-prog interludes in “Stillborn” and closer “Voidgazer” offer some welcome variety by recalling Opeth’s softer moments. But front to back, the strongest effort has to be “Tomb Omnia.” The shortest and most tightly-written track here, “Tomb” features biting licks and a huge weeping chord progression that make it one of the few tracks that match past glories.
And really, that’s telling of the album as a whole: Arson is not a bad record, just an enjoyable one that has the misfortune of being part of an excellent discography. While giving fans more of what they want, I can’t help but feel more time in the oven would have produced something stronger. Still, those looking for a clean and highly melodic version of post-black metal have come to the right place. Let’s just hope Harakiri light something that burns a little brighter in the future.