There are two kinds of metal albums that tickle my fancy. The first kind takes a band’s trademark sound, alters it just enough to keep things fresh, but also retains everything that makes that artist or band unique, enjoyable, and otherwise impossible to do without. The other has mere glimpses of what made that band who they are, but throws so many curveballs, surprise left hooks, and a kitchen sink or twelve your way, and demands that you catch it all. Swiss avant garde spiritualists Schammasch most certainly fit into the latter with relative ease. Even after releasing a three-disc, exactly-100-minute monstrosity in the form of Triangle back in 2016, it still didn’t fully prepare me for what Hearts of No Light had in store for me, even with Roquentin‘s glowing, informative review giving me an incredible insight and synopsis.
I’m not complaining, mind you. Hearts of No Light features some of the same intense moments showcased on Triangle, and in some ways exceeds them. Opener “Winds That Pierce the Silence” starts off with guest pianist Lillian Liu setting up a dramatic first half while the band builds up the second with a pulsing rhythm while a lone guitar plays a lick that wouldn’t be out-of-place on a latter-day Death album. As soon as “Ego Sum Omega” launches, you can tell the prog influences that were hinted at on Triangle begin to shine, but not at the expense of the spiritual intensity that Schammasch has made their bread and butter. Guitars that sound like a blackened Fates Warning punctuate above B.A.W’s tricky drum fills and patterns. The song slows down considerably before ramping up the tremolo, ending with synthesized horns building up before an amazing climax.
It’s those moments of pure, majestic atmosphere that elevates Hearts above its contemporaries. Album standout (and literal midway point) “Rays Like Razors” strikes the perfect balance of the spiritual, the intense, and the bizarre, with C.S.R howling like a possessed Jaz Coleman over thundering drums and a subdued choir. It’s here that everything comes together in what I feel is the best song of Schammasch‘s still-early career. I’ve noted this song in particular because it acts as the album’s dividing line between two distinct sides of Schammasch; the more straight-forward, yet still adventurous first half, and the truly bizarre, no-fucks-given second half. “I Burn Within You” features not only atonal piano plinking, but also some whacked out spoken word pieces by Aldrahn (ex-Thorns/-Dödheimsgard) before throttling back into a glorious second half.
But none are more bizarre than the five-headed Gothic elephant that is “A Paradigm of Beauty.” I’m not gonna lie; yes, it does disrupt the flow of the album. Yes, it sounds like something off of a Joy Division album.1 Thing is, it’s grown on me considerably with each listen. As someone who loves his share of Goth music, I appreciate it, even if it does feel considerably out-of-place. Another smaller issue would be closing instrumental “Innermost, Lowermost Abyss,” clocking in at a considerable fifteen minutes, but the band and guest musician Dehn Sora make damn good use of those fifteen minutes, with the first half building up with tribal percussions, shimmery strings, and an underlying simplistic keyboard melody that lies beneath as the rest bottom out in the second half, giving way to whispered chants that grow and increase in volume before going static, leaving only but a simple, ominous pulsing sound remains. Add in a mix that teems with energy and uncharacteristic warmth, and Hearts stands out even further from the throngs of quality black/death metal albums over the last decade, let alone this year.
Many bands are content with giving their fans what they want. After all, you can build a long, healthy career in doing so. But bands that follow their own artistic muse and invite the fans to follow along to their blend of madness and artistic integrity end up being remembered far after careers wind down and trends move on. Much like Akercocke and Voices before them, Schammasch aren’t merely pushing the envelope with Hearts of No Light. Rather, they’re fucking with the idea of what an envelope could be. That, and it’s a fucking beast in its own right. Easily a high mark for the band, and a definite list contender.