Real talk: most of the time the intros for these things are the hardest part; grueling, even. This is probably obvious, given how often they’re rambling and off-topic, but it’s the truth. It’s even harder when resounding apathy is the limit of what one can muster after a week of listening to something, and that’s where I am. The band, Herod, has got some talent, and are looking to make their mark with debut record Sombre Dessein, but the result is unfortunately mixed. A Swiss quartet of death/sludge progsters should be pretty engaging, at least in theory; so what went wrong here?
Sombre Dessein is an album characterized primarily by the death/sludge/prog hybridization. In addition to the admixture of genre, Sombre Dessein also exhibits a dusting of lilting, echoey clean vocals to contrast strained screams and wails, lyrics in a mix of English and French, and staccato, jerking alteration of time signatures. The blending allows for a considerable variety of song structure; from the the slow, creeping dread of two-part1 opener “Fork Tongue” and the tenser, rumbling build of closer “There Will Be Gods,” to the frenetic rage of “Reckoning” and the oxymoronically-named “Silent Truth.” “Reckoning” probably stands out as the highlight of the album, with vocal and guitar hooks aplenty amidst all the proggy unevenness and… what’s this? The best track is the promo single? I think that’s a first for me as a reviewer.
Sombre Dessein suffers from issues of editing. “Don’t Speak Last” is an interesting slow burn, but is much too long to work effectively at 10 minutes. “Don’t Speak Last” and “There Will Be Gods” could be trimmed of a couple minutes each and be better for it. More critical is a structural issue: track order. Sandwiching a slow, contemplative number like “Don’t Speak Last” between two barnburners like “Reckoning” and “Silent Truth” does the album a disservice as the record’s opener and closer both build slowly. Better would be to flip “There Will Be Gods” to the middle and close things out with a bang. And these problems result in an album which fails to engage the listener, leaving me cold. Sombre Dessein makes an enjoyable listen in the moment, but it melts away once you’ve heard it like words in a language you don’t speak.
The production (courtesy of Julien Fehlmann, with a master from Cult of Luna‘s Magnus Lindberg) is warm, bordering on sweltering, with a thick, flanged bass tone and acrid guitars. Drums slap firmly just inside the bottom half of the mix, while the cymbals echo distantly, obscured but not lost. Pilat’s vocals rest lightly just above the instrumentation. No element particularly stands out, but neither does anything overshadow another component; this level of auditory cohesiveness is both unexpected and welcome. Conversely, an examination of performances offers some clear winners. Vocalist (and guitarist) Mike Pilat (ex-The Ocean) offers a manic performance, aided often by a buzzing feedback effect, while the dueling, intertwined guitar and basswork layer the album with hooks. Sadly, the drums don’t quite reach the same level, feeling more perfunctory than anything. While not inept, they are unfortunately overshadowed throughout Sombre Dessein. The flat drums may be the result of an industry standard brickwalled master that makes one inevitably wonder what’s been lost.
Sombre Dessein is an album that I wanted to like more, but that ultimately falls under its own weight. There’s obvious skill in Herod, but the whole package never lives up to more than the sum of its parts. It’s worth a listen if sludge is up your alley, but excepting the album’s standout track “Reckoning,” I don’t see myself returning to it.