Named after the gorgeous but poisonous winter flower of the same name, Helleborus’ debut full-length The Carnal Sabbath is a proper manifestation of both the gorgeous and the poisonous. Coloradan brothers Wyatt and Jerred Houseman have created a peculiar cosmic world anchored by a standard modern-day black metal sound: part Deathspell Omega and part Behemoth, The Carnal Sabbath is an incessant attack of Inferno-esque drum-work layered with sharp and unpredictable angular riffing. However, lingering beneath the surface, the album often spirals away from convention as moments of trippy psychedelia and bluesy-groove fizz through this exciting, though inconsistent, record with pomp. The Helleborus flower really is a fitting emblem of an album that juxtaposes gorgeously airy sections of melody with overwhelming black-metal abrasiveness. This juxtaposition, however, is often as jarring as it reads on paper, and at times The Carnal Sabbath suffers from a rather schizophrenic instability. Inconsistent is an apt adjective and that’s really a shame.
“Helleborus Black” and “Coils,” the opening tracks of the album, are conventionally unorthodox in their approach: sharp and discordant riffs are layered over maniacal drum-work that shifts and morphs before the listener can really get a hold of what’s going on. It’s all rather slapdash. Riffs explode into the next without warning, the furious drumming careers into the next drum-fill, and there are enough tempo changes and transitions into moments of eerie cosmic electronica to overstimulate the senses for a lifetime.
There are flashes of excellence here, however, particularly when the songs slow down to a mid-paced groove. At 2:30 of “Coil” the music steadies and the combination of melodic arpeggios, elastic bass-lines and steady drums is pleasant; at 3:20 a not-at-all out of place, semi-spasmodic drum solo – electronica quietly wavering beneath – shows signs of the eccentricity that pops up every now and then to great effect. “Temple of Seventh Death” has a dragging melancholic sound akin to the ethereal and more subdued instrumentation of bands like Saturnus and Anathema. The bubbling bass and guitars work beautifully together, the leads begin to soar with melodic astuteness and the drums – furiously brilliant throughout – are more complimentary and subtle.
Helleborus do pensively beautiful very well. The penultimate song, “A Gift of Renewal,” is similarly forlorn. It opens with melodic mid-paced noodling before moving into rich and textured medieval territories reminiscent of Obsequiae. The melodic leads are memorable and the vocals – rather distractingly loud, overbearing and drenched in reverb during the opening songs of the album – are satisfyingly wispy and subtle.
Simplicity, with less frenzy, is where The Carnal Sabbath excels. With these more melodic, retro-occult sounding tracks, the songs come across as organic and truly memorable. “Edge of Black Waters” is considerably different to the rather uninspiring openers. The song – with its bare and peculiar bluesy-groove, a black’n’roll spirit channeled – is reminiscent of early-to-mid 90s Greek bands such as Rotting Christ and Necromantia and the peculiar approach of Master’s Hammer. Guitarist, bassist and drummer Jerred rides the hi-hats with panache, whammified and warping guitars groove and Wyatt’s vocals transition from growls and rasps to airy and deep gutturals. The sound of bells chiming, a regular occurrence throughout the album, are as out of place as a mime artist performing to the blind, yet these little quirks are endearing.
The album is set up to accentuate the nine-minute plus closer “The Carnal Sabbath,” an epic and much more fluid combination of the myriad styles and sounds explored on the album. We enter via spacey and occult progressive sounds; interesting electronic swipes alongside ZZ Top grooves aplenty combine with memorable transitions from moments of mystical psychedelia to more conventional black-metal. It’s a memorable and satisfying end to an album that shows glimpses of brilliance but is all too often bogged down by a lack of consistency, leading to a fragmented, yet largely enjoyable, listening experience.