Genres are one of the most contentious features of music in general, and metal in particular, considering the wide sprawl of sub-subtypes we have dug around ourselves. I won’t dive into the deeper discussion about the merits of this labyrinthine web here,1 but I will make the case for “cinematic metal” to be the most useless genre tag in the metalverse. Bands ranging from power metal to black metal and everything in between have laid claim to it, and the argumentation for it rarely stretches beyond ‘there’s a story in the lyrics.’ French collective Hypno5e join the ever-expanding parade of ostensible cinematic metal purveyors with A Distant (Dark) Source, its story set around the dry paleolithic Lake Tauca in Bolivia. But where do they fall on the scale from cinematic power to cinematic black metal?
Apparently, somewhere in the middle and then pretty much off the scale altogether. Source is an album with 2 distinct faces and 4 lengthy compositions, split up into individual tracks and totaling 70 minutes. It’s an ambitious project, evidenced by the 18-minute video accompanying the titular work. The aforementioned two faces are used to create contrast throughout the album. One side of the coin is a dreamy amalgamation of post-rock somnambulance and indie rock melancholy. The other side is a mixture of the signature syncopated tech-groove sound of Gojira with the stream-of-consciousness writing of post-metal. It’s a potent combination, harnessing emotion and blistering intensity in equal measure.
And when this combo works, it really works. There’s some very effective transitions between the two gears, especially when the music drop-kicks you from a quiet section into a high speed pile-driver as happens several times in opener “On the Dry Lake;” these moments resonate in my stomach like a roller-coaster drop. The title track triptych (embedded in full) is the centerpiece of the album, sporting some gorgeous melodies executed with excellence, the harsh vocals injecting an extreme desperation reminiscent of King Apathy. These also feature in one of the strongest moments on the record. During the last part of closer “Tauca – Part II (Nowhere),” a turbulent maelstrom falls away to nothing but strings and piano, while the harsh screams continue.
Such excellence doesn’t happen frequently enough across the 70-minute time-span, however, and Source has a tendency towards bloat. Too often it’s hard to gauge whether the record is working towards anything or is just stringing things along, and such aimlessness makes it hard to excuse the sheer length of the record. Though no singular movement should be cut entirely, as each has something to offer, the record often gets stuck in quiet indie or post-jira mode too long at a stretch, and it undoes the dynamic feel and sense of progression gained from this play in contrast. A strange choice in songwriting, considering the storytelling nature of the record. The supposed cinematic quality is now more evident from the promo sheet than it is from the actual compositions, ignoring the snippets of French conversation that dot the tracklist.
A Distant (Dark) Source is a prime example of a good thing spread too thin. The good outweighs the bad on the opener, closer and the title tracks, while across the rest the bloat looms too heavily to wholly recommend them. Adding these concerns together results in an album that shows a lot of ambition but falls too short on songwriting acuity to deliver. Hypno5e are not short on inspiration, nor on technical prowess, evidenced by the solid execution. But if the next turn of the wheel is going to make an impact, they will have to learn to pare down their tracks to their strongest components. After all, cinematic metal does not mean it has to be the length of a feature film.
- For what it’s worth, my stance on genres is that they are useful descriptors as long as they indicate recognizable common elements between similar bands, such as a style of guitar play or general atmosphere. The moment a genre is too broad to denote a particular sound, or so narrow it only describes a select few bands, it loses its function. ↩