When I saw the name On Thorns I Lay pop up in the fetid muck of the AMG promo sump, I was more than a bit surprised. I’d followed this mercurial Greek act pretty closely back in the early aughts as they steadily evolved from primitive doom death to goth metal, and on to something like a heavier Radiohead on their 2003 album, Egocentric. The band then promptly imploded and were not heard from again. Apparently they reformed and released an album in 2015 which I completely missed, and now they’re back to deliver Aegean Sorrow. And what a different beast they’ve become since 2003. This is not like a metalized Radiohead, nor is it goth metal. No sir, this is 120% depressive sadboy melo-death with a big Peaceville Three influence and a healthy commitment to the bleak Finnish charms of Rapture, Insomnium and early Amorphis. While I’m not surprised the band shifted direction again, as that’s always been their thing, I am surprised with how well they pull off this particular style. This is some high-class, top-shelf stuff with a great sense of drama, pacing, and emotion. It’s also the most impressive material the band has ever released. A lot can change in 15 years.
The first stop on this comeback crusade takes place on The Karelian Isthmus, courtesy of the nearly 9 minute opening title track with all its stark, weighty melodic doom. The guitars alternate between creepy, crawly doom riffs and majestically trilling harmonies and the balance feels just right. More importantly, the leads will get in your head, get comfy and start redecorating. Stefanos Kintzoglou drops a mammoth low-register death roar over everything that feels HEAVY, and guitarists Christos and Akis serve up some stunning solo-work as the song winds along the path of heartbreak and depression (especially from 5:00 onward). “Erevos” keeps things flowing with a similar mood and related riff line, but soon blossoms into its own creature, beautiful and haunting, heavy but melodic, grim but extremely accessible.
Things remain downcast and bleak up until “Olethros Part I” which sounds like a completely different band. Aggressive chugging death riffs enter the fray rather jarringly and the whole melo-death thing gets jettisoned for something more primal and savage. The vocals become sub-basement croaks and things drift toward a mixture of Triptykon and The 11th Hour for a time. By the song’s midpoint the style melds back into melo-death, but it’s an odd mixture of styles to be sure. “Olethros Part II” is also an odd duck, deviating to pursue something like modern Opeth, replete with shimmering acoustic guitars and lush, proggy soundscapes torn from the 70s. It get increasingly heavy as the song rolls along and the last third is quite brilliant with some beautiful guitar-work. An album highlight is “The Final Truth,” which adopts a strong November’s Doom influence, made all the stronger by Paul Kuhr’s gripping guest vocals. The combination of mournful doom riffs, Kuhr’s deep, plaintive cleans and some weeping violin is an irresistible one and I can’t stop spinning this thing.
So what’s the downside? Well, as great as the material is, the album concludes with back to back instrumental set pieces. One has spoken word segments, but is mostly composed of sullen acoustic guitar work, and the closer is all about somber, sadboy piano. Both are very well done and quite beautiful, especially the piano work on “Skotos.” The problem is the combination of the two together kills the album’s gloomy but heavy momentum and brings things to a close with a whimper instead of a roar. It’s a beautiful whimper, but still.
The album sounds absolutely gorgeous, with a deep, rich mix and a vibrant lushness to everything. It comes as no surprise to discover the mixing and mastering was done by none other than Lord Dan “Fucking” Swanö. That man can do no wrong and I love the way this thing sounds.
I’m impressed with all the performances here, from Kintzoglou’s huge death roars, to the excellent guitar-work from Christos and Akis. This album is littered with slick doom riffs and lovely harmonies, and the acoustic work is exquisite. The keyboards by Antony are evocative and subdued, and the drums have a great pop to them as kit man Fotis Hondroudakis plays with economy, adding a lot while doing relatively little.
This is an impressive album, and it sounds nothing like the sometimes sloppy, loopy stuff On Thorns I Lay was pumping out in the early 2000s. In fact, as I go back and listen to those older albums, it’s difficult to reconcile what they’ve done here with their past in any meaningful way. Were it not for a few weird track order choices and a wee bit of a cohesion problem, this thing would be an early contender for my year-end list. As is, this is definitely something fans of melo-doom should check out toot sweet. Here be the feels.