For those engulfed in the US Black Metal (USBM) scene, California’s Palace of Worms may be a familiar name to you. For everyone else, the band mixes Pacific Northwest Black Metal (PNWBM) and the ethereal beauty of Alcest (Alcest-core) with some signature Norwegian Black Metal (TRVEBM) rawness. With a couple of respectable full-lengths and a handful of splits with Botanist, Mastery, and Thoabath, sole-member Balan has focused mainly on the combination of grim black-metal with the melodic qualities of the post-black genre. However, his exploration into trance-inducing atmospheres and Neige-like clean vocals on Lifting the Veil tracks “Hellish Journey” and “Final Moments” have unsurprisingly inspired Balan to dive deeper into his unique interpretation of the post-black/PNWBM sound.
However, the best part of Balan’s decision to make this full-blown move is his ability to mold well-crafted atmospheres and builds; tapping into the magic of the genre while resisting the urge to sound pretentious. While there are many lengthy songs on 2016’s The Ladder, most lack the let’s-make-it-long-because-we-can mentality displayed by others of the genre (you know, like Wolves in the Throne Room (WinTR)). As intended, each song represents a carefully turned rung for this black-metal ladder. Balan uses the standard rasps, whispered spoken-word, and some low, menacing croons (similar to those of Dark Tranquillity‘s Mikael Stanne) to match the varying black metal influences spread throughout The Ladder. The result is a well-balanced album of long songs, short songs, bone-crushing ditties, and emotional numbers that make navel-watching just a touch more exciting than it sounds.
Using some polished inspirations from the opening numbers of 2009’s The Forgotten and concluding pieces of 2010’s Lifting the Veil, The Ladder plunges deeper into the band’s melodic inklings; focusing more than ever on atmosphere and mood and emotion. “In the Twilight Divide” makes its presence known within milliseconds of pressing play, coming down on your eardrums with a crash of bass guitars and interesting, and effective, mandolin tremolos. After careening through black-metal pickings, assaulting drum work, and massive amounts of throat carnage, the opener returns to its mandolin roots and post-black atmospheres, ever-exaggerating the song with the distant, clean-vocal contributions from Balan and his collection of guest-vocalists. These vocal elements can also be found in the breathtaking “Nightworld,” the droning, spoken-word epic “Strange Constellations,” and the Ghost-meets-Mastodon performance of “Wreathe.” All four tracks represent the best material on the album—consisting of some of the best clean vocals, atmospheres, and the best conclusions—without being pretentious or snobbishly hipster.
For an album that houses simplistic, yet memorable riffs that reek of the band’s influences without ever truly copying them, there are a few issues with The Ladder. While I have much love for the mandolin-centered opener, it begins so abruptly that I honestly thought the album’s tracks had loaded onto my computer out of order. This “issue” isn’t one that makes or breaks the album, but it does stand out every time I give The Ladder a spin. Furthermore, the closer lacks almost everything I love about the opener. It’s so straightforward that it is borderline boring and its blandness does an injustice to its bookending counterpart. Also, the mid-album instrumental “An Innate Sickness” may be designed for a midsection breather (much like The Forgotten‘s title track), but it lacks memorability and reason.
Minus these small flaws, The Ladder is actually a really solid album. Balan’s black metal rasps make their way to the front of the mix (while the cleans fittingly remain in the background), the bass guitar and drums have a huge presence throughout, and the production is superior to previous releases. The Ladder‘s compression may be subpar, but it has an openness and crispness to it, setting it apart from the overly reverberating, trebly approach of The Following and Lifting the Veil. But, for those black metal fans who have shut the door on all things Alcest-core, The Ladder is the best outing yet for Palace of Worms and (you never know) it may be your golden ticket back into this sub-sub-genre.
DR: 7 | Format Reviewed: 128 kbps mp3
Label: Broken Limbs