Back in the early days of my tenure at AMG, I found myself reviewing a fair amount of black metal. As it was only AMG and myself writing reviews back then, it was all hands on deck regardless of genre, and that was how I came to cover a relatively obscure one-man Ukrainian black metal act named Raventale. The project of a mystery man named Astaroth (Balfor, Chapter V: F10, et al), Raventale‘s awfully titled 2011 opus Bringer of Heartsore had me enjoying of deep atmosphere on long, meandering compositions that somehow held my attention and transported me to melancholy worlds at discount prices. As much as I enjoyed the album, I didn’t keep a keen eye out for followup releases. Now the 9th album, Morphine Dead Gardens is upon me, I realize I missed 3 platters since Heartsore, and that Astaroth’s ESL dilemma hasn’t became any less dire. And I noticed something else upon hitting play – Raventale is no longer an atmospheric black metal band. Morphine Dead Gardens is 120% funeral doom, with long, drawn out compositions that plod and slog as forlorn, funerary harmonies fill the air with grief. I’m surprised by the shift, but the high level in which the genre is executed is the real shocker here. This is really, really good, emotional music regardless of genre.
Clocking in at one hour and featuring but 5 songs, you know you’re in for some mammoth length tuneage. Opener “As an Empty Shell” kicks off so massively it’s like being sucker punched by a mountain range covered in nails. Simple, mega-heavy doom riffs pound and shake as rafter-rattling death roars blow across the wasteland like a demonic wind. The riff-work mixes bone powdering leads with weepy, plaintive harmonies that recall such varied maestros of melancholic mopery as Doom:VS, Saturnus, and early days Swallow the Sun. It’s these heart-aching harmonies that really drag you in, giving you just enough to hang onto as you drift across the lengthy void the song creates, while creating a feeling akin to digging through dark earth toward some distant flicker of light. It’s immediately obvious just how well the song is structured because its nearly 14 minute runtime slips away before you realize it, leaving you wishing for a few more minutes of its beautifully sparse and depressive revelry.
This is the way the remainder of the songs play out as well. “Lorn and Deserted” feels every bit as bleak, introducing minimalist piano notes to offset the prodigious riffs. By the halfway point you start to realize the song feels like an unceasing funeral march to some distant gravesite, and you’ll want to keep marching because the music is so emotional and compelling. Spoken word vignettes drift in during “This Forsaken Place,” calling to mind the best of Saturnus‘ and My Dying Bride‘s despondent dreamworks, and little melodic flourishes ebb and flow, often making outsized impacts as they subtly enhance and heighten the feeling of despair (especially true at 9:53). Astaroth has developed an uncanny ability to do the maximum with the minimum, and I’m nothing but impressed by how effectively the music toys with my emotions.
There are no duds here, and to be honest, this plays out more like a singular piece of music than a collection of songs. I put it on and immerse myself in it without much regard to what track is what. This is an album you can get lost in on a dark night, and with winter just a stone throw away, this is going to be my go to for those snowy, grey days of introspective rumination. With one mind responsible for every nook and cranny of the album’s sound, it’s clear Astaroth put a lot of time and effort into this release. He was good at long-form songcraft way back in 2011, but he’s taken it to a whole other level here. If there are criticisms to be had, things can occasionally feel too sparse and there’s not much diversity in approach, if such a thing is even possible with funeral doom. That said, this is the extremely rare funeral doom album I can play from start to finish and then start right back up without needing a brisk walk or a shot of whiskey courage first. Hell, I’m not even a big fan of the genre and this still got its insidious hooks in my marrow.
Morphine Dead Gardens is a monster of a funeral doom album swaddled in deep melancholy, and the chronic sadboi in me can’t resist its sepulchral charms. I concede there’s nothing new being done here, but it’s exceptionally well crafted and finds that exact sweet spot between heavy and melodic that good funeral doom strives for, so I can’t knock it. Raventale should have made this switch a long time ago, and I don’t miss their black metal roots at all. This is a top-notch slab of dark mood music you should acquire and wallow in post-haste. Happiness is overrated, so bring on the Morphine gardening.