Lhaäd – Below Review

Below is the debut full-length from one-person ambient black metal project Lhaäd. This description is likely to conjure up worrisome images of self-indulgent hours-long snoozefests that use tepid atmospheres to mask lazy writing. But Belgian multi-instrumentalist Lykormas, Lhaäd’s prolific mastermind, is not so easy to pigeonhole. His CV begins in 1996 and spans genres as varied as post-metal (Hemelbestormer), old-school black metal (Entartung, Gorath), doom (Rituals of the Dead Hand), and grindcore (Wolven). Below is billed as “industrial ambient black metal,” and sees Lykormas blend his wide-ranging experience with a healthy dose of industrial elements to stand apart from the atmospheric hordes.

Lhaäd’s sonic mosaic of disparate genres eludes easy description. Below sounds distinct from Lykormas’ numerous other projects. Rather, Lhaäd self-identifies as “hadopelagic” black metal (an adjective I never thought I’d see again), and Below often evokes the synth-laced atmoblack of Darkspace and the guitar-centric celestial ambience of Mare Cognitum. But these comparisons only scratch the surface. Various sections of Below resemble the immersive soundscape of early Drudkh (“II,” “IV”), the industrial percussion-led attack of Mysticum (“III,” “VI”), the less experimental parts of Blut Aus Nord’s Hallucinogen and Memoria Vetusta (“I,” “V”), and Darkthrone-style second-wave worship (“II,” “IV”). Even this description doesn’t quite do justice to Below’s sonic diversity, which keeps the listener guessing at every turn. Lhaäd unifies these styles to forge an atmosphere that alternates between claustrophobic and cosmic.

Below’s greatest triumph is the way it tessellates its varied influences into a rich mosaic. Lhaäd excels at weaving a medley of ideas into each track without sacrificing cohesion. Several songs dance fluidly from crushing tremolo riffs to industrial drum programming to Lovecraftian synths to melodic black metal and back again, without skipping a beat (“III,” “IV,” “V”). Below’s experimental nature is underscored by unexpected flourishes like the doomy middle of “II” and the Nile-esque ending of “V.” Despite these excursions, Below builds songs around recurring themes to avoid seeming disjointed. “I” and “IV” use melodic and rhythmic continuity to maintain a sturdy backbone amidst creative digressions, while “II” is constructed around a riff that sounds like a B-side from Autumn Aurora, which resurfaces artfully after journeys into industrial doom and Darkspace territory. Lhaäd successfully walks a treacherous tightrope to write songs that are dynamic without feeling haphazard.

The musical ideas that form Lhaäd’s vibrant mosaic are largely compelling, albeit inconsistent. A frequent criticism of ambient albums is their reliance on insipid “atmospheric” meanderings at the expense of substance. Lhaäd avoids this by writing earworm dual-guitar riffs like the openings of “I” and “V,” and building ambiance on a bedrock of rock-solid guitar and synth melodies (“II”). Most impressively, album closer and SOTY contender “VI” lunges forth with a Kvaen-inspired barnburner riff before transitioning into a pounding programmed drum section and a gripping folk-tinged Darkspace-meets-Moonsorrow interlude, leading into a haunting melodic outro that leaves me stunned every time. These high points of Below coalesce into an oppressive soundscape that buries the listener beneath palpable waves. Sadly, not all of Below lands equally well, with the record’s mid-section failing to live up to the high standard of its bookends. “III” and “IV” lean on melodies that fail to lodge in my memory even after many listens, while the synth-led digressions of “V” are a dull splotch on an otherwise engaging track. Along with the uniformly bland bass performance, this unevenness causes Below to feel too long despite a manageable 40-minute runtime, a noticeable blemish on an impressive record.

When the Angry Overlord assigned me to a one-person atmoblack debut, my heart sank, and I recoiled in my chains. But against all odds, Łħäääääđ manages to inject fresh ideas into a genre that often relapses into stale bloat. The result is an album that remains exciting after dozens of listens, while the sheer diversity of the namedrops above should bear witness to Lhaäd’s willingness to push boundaries. Although Below took several spins to reveal its colorful facets to me, this effort was immensely rewarding. Below’s inconsistency holds the record back from excellence, but I’m excited to hear what Lhaäd has in store next.

Rating: 3.5/5.0
DR: 7 | Format Reviewed: 320 kbps mp3
Labels: Babylon Doom Cult Records | Extraconscious Records | Fólkvangr Records
Websites: thenoxentity.bandcamp.com | facebook.com/thenoxentity
Releases Worldwide: December 10th, 2021

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