I come to my last writing engagement of the year off the back of reading Grymm’s humbling first post on mental health in metal – and the absolutely incredible reaction to that – as well as wrapping up my TYMHMs and agonizing over my year-end list. It feels somehow anticlimactic to return to ‘normal’ reviewing. That’s no disrespect, however, to today’s subject, a band formed way back in the early 90s in Portugal under the name Grendel, then becoming Geryous, before assuming their current and enduring moniker, Israthoum in 1998. Now based in the Netherlands, this black metal three-piece has a number of demos, splits and EPs under their collective belt, plus three full-lengths. The last of those, 2017’s Channeling Death and Devil, continued the course begun on their 2008 debut LP, delivering all-out misanthropic, anti-theist old school black metal, with sparing but effective use of melody. Have Israthoum held their course on Arrows from Below or have they been forced to take cover?
At a little over half an hour, Arrows from Below is a much shorter record than Channeling Death and Devil but Israthoum have lost none of their aggression and the shorter runtime actually gives them a sense of urgency that was missing on the last record. Although the basic mold remains primal, vicious black metal recalling the likes of Gehenna, Israthoum do (at least) three things particularly well on Arrows from Below. First up is that short run time, which keeps the attention from wandering, despite finding yourself abroad on a fairly well-trodden path. The second is that, right from the opening notes of “Litany of Spite,” the sound is fuller than on previous outings, giving Arrows a sense of grandeur and scale, which pervades the album. Lastly, the deeper you go into the record, the more varied influences there are on show.
Second track “Bracu Magistrïs” opens with an unexpected piano refrain, “Ascetic Temples” toys with a blackened death vibe and, by fourth track “Laetetur Cor,” Israthoum are introducing a hint of grinding industrial weight to proceedings, reminding me of Panzerfaust’s The Suns of Perdition I: War, Horrid War (a record I increasingly feel I may have under-scored). The vocals, handled by bassist VxInfr, are harsh for the most part, ranging from traditional rasped fare to gruffer barks and throaty screams, but occasionally stray into something that’s almost (but not quite) clean vocal territory, most notably on “Tuam Vocavit.” That track closes the album and is also the least black metal thing on Arrows from Below, taking the tempo right down and threatening breaking into doom territory for significant chunks of its runtime.
For a black metal record billed by its accompanying blurb as ‘violent, ominous and drenched in an immense darkness,” Arrows from Below is actually textured, at times melodic and sounds surprisingly good. Although pummeling in the main, Israthoum are confident enough to allow a few moments of surprising delicacy to play their part across Arrows. The production is clear, with a nice guitar tone and a pleasing heft to both the drums and VxInfr’s strong bass work. The vocals are perhaps a bit too far forward in the mix but they are not so overbearing as to drown out the good work being done elsewhere.
For all its positives though, something about Arrows from Below didn’t quite click with me but, deeply unsatisfying though this is, I couldn’t quite put my finger on why. Israthoum have turned out a brutal piece of black metal that, despite being an incredibly lean half an hour with zero bloat, still toys with wider influences. It sounds good and the performances are all strong. And yet, somehow, it doesn’t stay with me. It lacks those few killer moments – and you only need a few – that make a record truly memorable. I enjoyed my time with Arrows from Below and have little negative to say about it but I can’t see it being something that I return to with any regularity. If you think that’s an anticlimactic note on which to close out my 2019 writing, imagine how I feel!
DR: 6 | Format Reviewed: 320 kbps mp3
Label: New Era Productions
Websites: israthoum-official.bandcamp.com | facebook.com/israthoum-official-108606202562464
Release Date: December 13th, 2019