Like much in life, and in music in particular, there is a scale to band names. Sometimes a great name comes from some incongruity, as with Sloth Herder, while other times it comes from directness, as with Death. Some of the best names, though, are worn as a mark of the band members’ aims and/or trauma, as with Orphaned Land. Mo’ynoq, Uzbekistan is a former fishing capital and trade hub now lain low. Once a place of bounty, the decline and poisoning of the Aral Sea by the agricultural practices of the Soviet Union have left it a dying husk, its few remaining inhabitants stricken with cancer and illness even as they scratch out a living from their drying, dusty coastline. It’s from this place that North Carolina’s Mo’ynoq borrow their nom de guerre. However, such an evocative (if obscure in the United States of 2019) moniker all but mandates high standards. How does their debut Dreaming in a Dead Language stack up, given all of this? Do they manage to draw some inspiration from the death of the Aral Sea here, or are their influences further afield? Well, no—the band appears to be a bunch of white dudes, so one can assume they just thought it sounded cool, which it admittedly does. Digressions aside, what’s the album like?
Dreaming opens smartly, with a track that typifies the album as a whole. After a quick tremolo-over-drums build, “Empyreal Decay” bursts forth with burly axecraft before just as suddenly shifting into a smooth but weighty groove. Dreaming as a whole exhibits a deftness of style that’s unusual for a debut record, ably shuffling between aggression, rideable riffage, and varying styles of melody, frequently showcasing all three elements on a given track. The melodic work in particular ranges across a few sonic palettes, from the warbling tones of “The Collector” and the sinister traditional black metal iciness of “These Once-Tranquil Grounds” to a subdued, subtle undercurrent on album closer “Buried by Regret.” While the individual songwriting is not the most diverse—the songs tend toward similar structures, despite a staunch avoidance of the verse-chorus formula—the album construction is much stronger, with the aggressive trends book-ending a calm middle in “Doomed to Endure,” a tranquil piano instrumental leading into the albums snarly peak, “Carve My Name.” Further preventing stagnation is the brisk 38-minute runtime, just long enough to satisfy the appetite without over-stuffing.
Unfortunately, Dreaming is just not a record that sticks its landing; despite the proficiency in performance and structure, the compositions themselves utterly fail to strongly impress. Rather, the album hovers implacably in “good” territory, making for a listen that is enjoyable without being engaging or even particularly memorable. Normally, the negatives paragraph is where I try to lax wyrical about how a band might have cleaned up an album with the writing, but the only advice to be offered here boils down to “write better stuff,” which is less than helpful.
As previously alluded to, the performances across the record range from great to decent at worst. The drumming tends toward workmanlike (in the positive sense of that term), which is a bit odd for black metal, but given how the songwriting spotlights the dizzying riff play of guitarists Don Boyd and Logan Holloway, this is harder to fault than it might otherwise be. One item worth special consideration is the split of vocal duties between both guitarists and bassist Devin Janus; the vocal tag-teaming and diversity of timbres is definitely a strength of the band, allowing for strained screams and cavernous roars alike. The production is solid, but not outstanding, with many of the common minor issues: the occasional questionable mixing call, a master that’s squashed but not ruined, bass that’s only perceptible most of the time, etc. That last item would be a larger issue in a more bass-focused sub-genre, but this is black metal we’re talking about.
All told, Dreaming in a Dead Language is an album indicative of a great deal of potential, but, unfortunately, it doesn’t fully deliver. There’s a lot of seeds of good material here, but this clearly needed a few more writing passes before hitting the studio. Decent stuff to throw on if you’re looking for something new, though.