There have been so many strong comebacks in recent years that it actually seems more notable when one doesn’t go well. Unfortunately, that’s exactly what happened to In the Woods…. In the 1990s, this Norwegian quintet captivated listeners with three albums that ranged in style from black metal to prog rock to avant-garde, all while maintaining an esoteric aura that was somehow only strengthened by their dissolution in 2000. Sadly, after their 2014 reformation, Woods released the disappointing Pure in 2016, a vapid piece of experimental doom metal that probably didn’t even deserve the 2.5/5.0 I gave it at the time. To make matters worse, founding members Christopher and Christian Botteri departed that same year, leaving original drummer Anders Kobro and relative newcomer James Fogarty (Old Forest, ex-The Meads of Asphodel) up shit creek without a bassist.
But rather than let Woods dissolve once more, the duo chose to blaze a new trail, recruiting guitarist Bernt Sørensen (Mental Disaster) and using the turmoil as fuel for a new album. Just two years after Pure, fifth full-length Cease the Day is now upon us, a record which finally shows the band’s comeback taking a turn for the better.
When I reviewed Pure I compared it to a “doomier [and] more psychedelic version of modern Enslaved.” By contrast, Cease sounds more like… modern Enslaved. While the shuffling doom riffs, plaintive clean picking, and Fogarty’s bellowing vocals are still present, this time around they’re often offset by faster segments of black metal riffing and gargled rasps. In some ways Woods are returning to their roots, as this is the first time they’ve used harsh vocals in any significant capacity since their 1995 debut Heart of the Ages. Yet their inclusion here is more than fan service. As a songwriting tool they serve as a welcome counterpoint to Fogarty’s cleans, while the extreme metal riffs that accompany them result in songs that are far more dynamic and interesting than those on Pure. It doesn’t hurt that Cease is a hookier and more memorable album, either.
Opener “Empty Streets” shows this from the start, alternating its cleanly sung refrain with hammering black metal passages, oblique riffs, and occasionally glorious progressions that (again) recall Enslaved. Second track “Substance Vortex” increases the extremity further, consisting almost entirely of raspy vocals and gyrating riffs that are only anchored to the band’s progressive spirit by some layered synthesizers and acoustic guitars. “Respect My Solitude” shows off even more hooks and dynamic songwriting, moving from strained Swallow the Sun leads to a terrific ascending chorus to jumbled punky battering without ever losing itself along the way.
From the melodoom Saturnus riffs of “Still Yearning”1 to the standout chorus of “Cloud Seeder,” the riffs and songwriting are simply much more inspired on Cease than its predecessor. Likewise, the production harbors a clear, layered, and spacious sound that’s a good fit for the style. Yet this doesn’t mean Cease is flawless. Too often Woods cling to their main ideas like they’re the final stick of beef jerky on a poorly planned hiking trip. Nearly every song repeats its primary theme at least one too many times, leaving almost all of these 8 tracks feeling one or two minutes too long. As such these songs feel “progressive” solely because of their disparate combination of styles. Rarely is there an adventurous or spacey passage to get lost in, as the band instead prefer to return to previously introduced ideas. For further grumbles, Fogarty’s vocal lines during the verses occasionally feel repetitive, “Strike up with the Dawn” sags a bit compared to fellow tracks, and cleanly sung outro “Cease the Day” feels a bit too lullaby-esque for my taste.2
Fortunately, none of this is enough to ruin the album. Even with all its flaws, Cease is still a marked improvement over Pure, with far more interesting songs, far more memorable hooks, and a far more inspired spirit. Though they still haven’t quite captured the mysticism of their early works, this new iteration of In the Woods… excites me nonetheless, particularly with the now-reintroduced black metal elements. We can only hope this upward trajectory continues. For now, Cease stands as a wholly enjoyable progressive black metal album that’s sure to please fans of Borknagar or Enslaved, not to mention those who heard Pure and knew the band could do better. They can, and Cease the Day is proof of it.