Back in August, I stumbled across an absurdity1 of the other writers loitering near the skull pit, waiting for the cleaners to finish. To pass the time, I suggested my fellows check out the advance tracks for HarborLights’ new record, which I misdescribed as instrumental post-metal. Doom_et_Al and Kronos barely looked up, while Sentynel said he would love to play but was a bit busy. Only Emya had the decency to pretend to be interested. Meanwhile, GardensTale not only listened but also summed up what he heard pretty accurately: “Hmm,” he pronounced “more post-rock than post-metal but that’s ok because it’s pretty sweet … oh, wait, it’s gone into the next track and there’s the metal!” I could probably leave this note on Isolation Ritual there to be honest, but I suppose I should add something.
HarborLights were unknown to me before this record, despite Isolation Ritual following a couple of split EPs and the band’s 2017 debut, Under the Spreading Chestnut Tree. The post-rock tag is probably more accurate than post-metal—and it’s one preferred by HarborLights themselves—although there is definitely metal on Isolation Ritual. But it was in describing the album as instrumental where I was way off the mark. Although a couple of the tracks are instrumental, this Massachusetts quartet employ vocals across the record. For the most part, these are handled by guitarist Matthew Wright, who does a solid job. Delivered in a fragile, at times reedy, style somewhere between the cleans of Black Peaks and the dirgey delivery of Impure Wilhelmina, Wright’s vocals are largely very effective (particularly on “Hold the Dark”), although he does fall a little flat on “From Virtue (Sacrament),” which is a shame because the lyrics are great2 but it’s a minor quibble. For epic album closer “The Unbearable Lightness of Being,” HarborLights brought in guest vocalist TJ Copello of Aviator to supply some howled post-metal vocals, rounding out Isolation Ritual on a heavy and satisfyingly cathartic note.
From the insistent, soaring atmospherics of instrumental “Skinwalker,” through the bleak ponderousness of “Year without a Summer,” to the stark, discordant post-metal heaviness of “…And Hell Followed,” HarborLights pack a lot into the 43-minute runtime. Indeed, despite the vocals, Isolation Ritual reminds me of the likes of Russian Circles and Driving Slow Motion’s Arda in weaving evolving moods and its ability to hold my attention. Christine Smith’s quietly understated performance on bass, coupled with Jordan Rodriguez’ strong but restrained work on drums, give Isolation Ritual a great sense of weight and density in the album’s heavier sections, while emphasizing a sense of fragility in the mellower post-rockier parts. Wright and fellow guitarist Andrew Diaz impress throughout, delivering texture and melody with deceptively simple riffs, and making sparing but effective use of the post-metal crescendo.
Not as bleak as the title suggests, but undoubtedly melancholic in parts, Isolation Ritual is an engrossing slice of metal-tinged post-rock, which has found a consistent place in my listening rotation since I discovered it. Will HarborLights change your life? Perhaps not, but GardensTale was right that “it’s pretty sweet.” If you are a fan of all things post, this is an album that repays time invested in it.
Tracks to Check Out and Determine How Right or Wrong GardensTale Was: “Skinwalker,” “…And Hell Followed” and “The Unbearable Lightness of Being.”
- It would appear there is no collective noun for a group of writers but this was suggested on one website and seems eerily accurate for a gaggle of AMG writers. ↩
- The first verse runs, “Bury me in peonies, Bend and break my body entirely, Repeat for me everything you said, Miss me from somebody else’s bed, Bury me in summer breeze, Piece me back together and wrap your lungs around me and, Wait until the dust settles in my head.” ↩