Having recently relocated from South Carolina (a.k.a. The Land of Eternal Swampass), the name Marsh Dweller immediately piqued my interest when I saw it on our promo list. I always seem to find myself applying band and album names in stupidly personal ways, and a moniker like that reminded me of the long nighttime walks I used to take through a nearby salt marsh while listening to Baroness and picking my underwear out of my asscrack. Fortunately the music here is much more high-brow than that. Formed in 2012 as the solo project of Pittsburgh multi-instrumentalist John Kerr (also of Noltem, Seidr, and Vit), Marsh Dweller specializes in earthy melodic black metal in the vein of Fen, October Falls, and Nechochwen. In the competitive world of nature-themed black metal, does this full-length debut surpass its blurry backwoods artwork or remain as exciting as swatting mosquitoes and throwing Borax on soiled boxer briefs?
Let me start by saying I get this is a saturated genre, and whether most people even listen to this will probably depend on if they still have an appetite for the style after Ashbringer, Falls of Rauros, and other similar albums from recent times. That said, it’d be a damn shame to miss The Weight of Sunlight, as it’s one of the strongest albums I’ve heard in the style in years. In addition to his knack for delivering quality riffs that sound both surprisingly fresh and wholly distinct from one another, Kerr displays a keen sense of pacing and arrangement that lets these 8 tracks stand well both alone and as part of the greater whole. Through its 43 minute runtime, Sunlight soars through an assortment of lush streaming leads, chunky shuffling chords, cresting treetop melodies, and perfectly placed moments of rich woodsy ambience. There’s no tedious meandering or a whiff of filler – these songs are tightly written and packed with ideas that manage to stand out even in a crowded genre.
First proper track “The Dull Earth” showcases this from the start, beginning with an encircling Celtic melody that weaves through the blunt surging riffs, gruff rasps, and twirling harmonized soloing of guest guitarist Tanner Anderson (Obsequiae). Early highlight “Where the Sky Ends” follows with a tremolo progression that sounds like a catchier version of something from Agalloch‘s Marrow of the Spirit before intertwining folky leads alternately ride along and break free from the rhythm guitars. Later songs showcase even more variety: in addition to a slick twisted melody and ritualistic clean backing vocals, sixth track “Forks of the River” also marks the first appearance of soft clean picking, and the song’s electric tears outro is all the stronger because of it. “Feathers on the Breath of God” stands out for its peppy uptempo progression and tribal drumming finish, while mid-album instrumental “Heaven’s Empty Light” utilizes a singing bowl, ambient woodland noise, and repetitive reverb-laced chords to provide a hypnotic counterpoint to the dense compositions elsewhere on the record.
Production-wise, the DR varies but maintains a respectable 7, allowing moments like the busy drumwork and tender acoustic chords of instrumental opener “Cultivating the Cosmic Tree” to shine. There’s just enough depth to conjure a vivid soundscape, yet the guitars maintain suitable potency, smoothness, and crunch. To really nitpick, I guess the bass could be more prominent and the drums could be a little more full, but overall this is a great sounding record.
In fact, my only real gripe with Sunlight is that it doesn’t break much new ground for the genre, but when it’s done with this much inspiration it’s hard to complain. The guitarwork is varied and memorable without being hammy or derivative, the drumming is suitably lively and dynamic, the atmosphere is convincing, and – with an average track length of just over 5 minutes – ideas are repeated at just the right times and never overstretched. Moments like the terrific beat shift in aforementioned “Sky” or the Wodensthrone melody-turned-tremolo riff of the closing title track show Kerr knows how to reforge his ideas for max effect, and the guest solo of Nechochwen‘s Aaron Carey on “Monumental Collapse” only add to the fun. With a bit more adventure and experimentation in the future, Marsh Dweller could very well become the next Panopticon. For now, it’s hard to ask for a better start.