I know what you’re thinking. You probably took one look at that cover art and album title, and thought “oh boy, another one of these.” And really, I don’t blame you. Records that pair abstract, artsy gore with a thematically rich title are the telltale wrappings of albums that may as well be the metal world’s equivalent of Oscar bait; you don’t have to listen to Horizon Ablaze to know that they deal in a progressive, forward-thinking strain of black/death metal. And yeah, most of those records are good, but The Weight of a Thousand Suns is especially fucking good. Borrowing sounds from a multitude of fellow genre-benders, the Norwegians’ third outing is handily their best work to date, maintaining the brutality of their humble origins while crafting a unique soundscape that’s as focused as it’s ambitious.
In case you glossed over the turn of phrase in the prior paragraph, the descriptor of black/death metal fits Horizon Ablaze much more snugly than the generic blackened death tag. TWoaTS doesn’t so much toe the line between the two as much as it eliminates the line altogether; there are clear-cut moments where either genre exhibits exclusively, but more often than not the band flows effortlessly between them. Punishing death metal chugs regularly evolve into dissonant blackened chords and tremolo runs in the span of a single riff, allowing the two styles to coexist naturally, as if part of a single genre. The diversity that this approach grants Horizon Ablaze’s sound is remarkable, a flexibility exemplified time and time again in tracks like opener “Sleep Is the Brother of Death,” where Enslaved-esque blackened majesty paves the way for biting vocals and oppressive doom-death atmosphere that smacks of Triptykon.
I could spend this entire review simply name-dropping bands that Horizon Ablaze invokes, and it’s to the band’s credit that despite the large catalog of influences, TWoaTS comes across as a supremely focused effort. Individual tracks cover leagues of sonic ground apiece yet rarely stretch past the six-minute mark, and every minute is spent surging forward with new riffs that build towards satisfying conclusions. Even the relatively restrained “The End of a Dream” succeeds in this manner, despite being the least riff-centric cut by far, exemplifying mature songwriting through rolling undercurrents of angst that surface and recede in varying degrees throughout. Other tracks exhibit a more immediate philosophy while still expertly delivering the same push-and-pull turbulence, namely “My Soul Divided,” a hurricane of hellish fretwork that gives the distinct impression of being thrashed around by a relentless, inescapable whirlpool.
The aggressively charged compositions – which frequently deliver peaks matched int he melancholic grandeur of Der Weg einer Freiheit – are executed with aplomb on all fronts, but the vocals of Andrè Kvebek (ex-1349) and Stian Ruethemann (who also handles half of the guitar duties) in particular sell the hell out of the emotional turmoil. Having two vocalists grants Horizon Ablaze a voice as diverse as its sound, meaning that tracks like the aforementioned “The End of a Dream” can run the gamut from prog metal croons to blackened rasps and hardcore shouts. The production, on the other hand, is a bit wonky. Drums feel imbalanced due to an overly loud cymbal presence and a strangely synthetic snare tone that isn’t exactly pleasant to listen to, and the mix doesn’t come close to delivering the dynamism demanded by the varied writing. On the flip side, the bass presence is pleasantly plunky and the guitars sound fantastic, with a deep, satisfying crunch that puts most death metal tones to shame.
The most trying aspect of reviewing The Weight of a Thousand Suns has been thinking of a favorite track to recommend, an impossible task I abandoned early on in the process. This is a testament not only to the album’s consistency, but to the focus of Horizon Ablaze’s vision; each track conveys everything the record has to offer in varying degrees, yet each emphasizes different aspects of the band’s sound to craft unique, self-contained experiences within the larger framework. The fact that this framework has only strengthened in my mind over the course of a week filled with days where TWoaTS received multiple spins should say a lot for the album’s staying power, and I wouldn’t be surprised at all to see it popping up on several year-end lists as a result. As of the time of this writing, you can bet your ass it’ll show up on mine.
DR: 6 | Format Reviewed: 320 kbps mp3
Releases Worldwide: February 16th, 2018