Noltem – Illusions in the Wake Review

It’s an uncomfortable moment in a reviewer’s life when you stumble across some promo blurb from a band’s label or PR company that is actually right on the money. While I recognize it must be no easy life if your day job is relentlessly writing promo for bands, these mini-essays are normally so pumped full of hyperbole, so riddled with awkward phraseology and so glowing with praise that this band is the second coming of [insert relevant genre titan], that the write-ups are effectively useless as a guide to the band one is about to sonically ingest. Every now and again, however, the promo hits the nail on the head. Such was the case for Connecticut-based atmospheric black metal trio Noltem and its debut, Illusions in the Wake. So much so in fact, that I regretted only bothering to read the blurb after spending a week with the record. What did it say, you cry? Patience, young grasshopper.

Illusions in the Wake, adorned in that mind-bending artwork, is atmospheric black metal done as it should be done. It brings together a wrenching, mournful fury and twisting, yearning melodies in a way that tells a compelling tale. The lyrics, delivered in a gravel-encrusted rasp with clean chanted backing vocals, remain largely incomprehensible but it matters not, the message of loss is writ large. Inhabiting territory that will be familiar to lovers of Agalloch and Falls of Rauros—indeed, Falls of Rauros‘ Jordan Guerette guest solos on Illusions in the WakeNoltem build their stall around a black metal core, replete with furious blasts, roiling tremolos and thundering bass. There is so much more to this record, however, as the gorgeous, progressive solo that drops less than a minute into opener, “Figment,” demonstrates. Across the ensuing 40 minutes, Noltem expertly blends acoustic passages, huge atmospheric builds and explosions of rage, as well as flourishes that occasionally verge on the psychedelic.

Although Noltem‘s closest comparators in terms of sound are the likes of AgallochIllusions in the Wake also reminded me of Mare Cognitum‘s Solar Paroxysm in its ability to build mood through buttery smooth melodies spread atop the harsher black metal edges. “Beneath the Dreaming Blue,” probably the heaviest offering on show, exemplifies this, as its furious, Panopticon-like assault is tempered with seams of deceptive gentleness. It’s fair to say that, by the time the album reaches its stunning conclusion, “On Shores of Glass,” Noltem has arguably strayed outside the realms of atmospheric black metal and into outright melodic metal, as the cascading guitars of Max Johnson and John Kerr build layer upon layer of gorgeous melody, and sonorous keys (also Kerr’s handiwork) add rich depth to the sound. In addition to Guerette, the record also features guest solos from Zach Miller (Pyrithe) and Aaron Carey (Nechochwen), although it doesn’t specify which tracks they guest on so I don’t know what to credit them for.

Suffice to say, Illusions in the Wake is an outstanding debut. Indeed, it’s hard to believe it’s a debut. The songwriting is tight and flows across the album, delicately modulating the mood, and carrying the record along. There is no falling back on repetitive refrains or song structures, and keeping a record of this style to a tight 40 minutes shows a maturity of songcraft that you don’t see very often. Even the deployment of samples, like the gently crashing waves that blend together the end of “Beneath the Dreaming Blue” and the album’s only interlude “Submerged,” works as an integral part of the sound, rather than an eyebrow-raising genre cliché. Mixed and mastered by Spenser Morris (whose credits include SaorPanopticon and Vukari, where he also plays bass and keyboards), Noltem has a vibrant and airy sound, which gives its component parts space to shine in their own right, as well as combining perfectly. My one question mark about Illusions in the Wake is whether longest cut “Ruse” quite lives up to the quality of the rest of the material but, book-ended by the excellent “Figment” and “On Shores of Glass,” this LP is very strong outing indeed.

Now, you’ve waited very patiently to find out what the promo said: “… Noltem have crafted an album with astonishing maturity and emotional depth. Their brand of atmospheric black metal is virtually flawless, blending all the elements that make this style of music work. It’s got perfectly tempered music, melodies that greatly enhance the expression of the inherently black metal riffing, elegant acoustic passages, tasteful keyboard sections, soaring guitar solos, vocals that go hand-in-hand with the plaintive music … immaculately put together … and executed to perfection.” And there, that’s my conclusion written. Thanks, promo dude.


Rating: 4.0/5.0
DR: 8 | Format Reviewed: 320 kbps mp3
Label: Transcending Obscurity Records
Websites: noltemband.bandcamp.com | facebook.com/noltem
Releases Worldwide: October 15th, 2021

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