In my mental compendium of underappreciated metal treasures, Hungary’s Sear Bliss holds a somewhat unique position. Though they’ve only released one truly great album in my eyes (2007’s The Arcane Odyssey), they have a relatively extensive back catalog of solid records, making them an easy selection whenever I want to throw on an uncomplicated black metal album that offers a few unique instrumental twists. The band’s incorporation of trombone had always delivered a distinct sense of heavy, brassy atmosphere that effectively combined second wave tropes with Summoning-esque majesty. With Letters from the Edge, the latter has stayed intact, but the former has fallen to the wayside in favor of something a bit more absorbing and melancholic. The resulting product indulges in many modern black metal tropes while simultaneously standing apart as a unique, nuanced production, though a handful of distracting issues bar it from true greatness.
Sear Bliss‘s 2012 offering, Eternal Recurrence, was an understated stroke of weirdness that combined the grooves of modern Satyricon and the jazzy leanings of Sigh‘s Scenes From Hell. Letters from the Edge, its follow-up, operates on a plain that is less eccentric yet more compelling. There is something inherently captivating about this record in its genre-splicing capabilities that makes its sound exceedingly difficult to pigeonhole. There are tonal elements of melodic death/doom (“Leaving Forever Land,” “Shroud”), post-rock (“Haven”), and even modern metal akin to Amorphis (“A Mirror in the Forest”), but Letters still resembles black metal in its base instrumental execution. In this way, the album is at once dream-like and contemporary. It sounds familiar, yet ultimately feels like a spellbinding brew that becomes more hypnotic and unfamiliar as it spirals toward its end.
As Letters draws to a close, Sear Bliss yanks the listener back from the ethereal whirlpool with its last two tracks,1 offering a pair of blasting black metal pieces in line with the band’s older material. This move doesn’t feel out of step with the rest of the record because of the strong sense of pacing provided by constant genre shifts. Where Letters does feel at odds with itself, however, is in its songwriting. Tracks possess logical, flowing structures that allow the disparate styles to interchange in a skillful way, yet they are also strangely static in that they rarely spike with instrumental fervor. This is a thoughtful, autumnal black metal record to be sure, but one that is still largely riff-based, and by that standard the guitars and drums feel a bit lackadaisical for my liking. If each track had an identifiable moment that injected an extra layer of performative personality, Letters may well have ascended to greatness.
In the past, Sear Bliss‘s trombone passages provided these exact sorts of cornerstone moments. While the trombone implementation on Letters is much the same as on prior SB albums — namely, being used to add additional instrumental and atmospheric textures without succumbing to brassy overkill — the record’s production doesn’t allow them to explode out of the mix as satisfyingly as they did before. Though Letters is not necessarily a bad sounding record, it is a largely flat one, both in its mixing and its apathetic rhythm tones. This dampens the music’s intended dramatic impact, and I might have scored it a half point higher had the mix offered some semblance of punch. Even so, Letters manages to be engrossing because it is so consistently good; its aforementioned hypnotic nature would not have been possible if there were any perceivable dips in quality, yet Sear Bliss manages to make every stylistic detour engaging.
I struggle to recall any record I’ve reviewed that has left me with as conflicted an opinion as Letters from the Edge. It has so many good things going for it, and it provides just the kind of unique blackened metal that I crave, with its positives so heavily outweighing its negatives that I feel like I’m out of my mind for not liking it more. There are just a few too many nits to be picked for me to fully embrace it, but even so, I fully identify it as the thoughtful, classy work of progressive black metal that it is. Others may justifiably love Letters more than myself, but even I can recognize that it fully deserves its slot in Sear Bliss‘s thoroughly solid discography.
DR: 7 | Format Reviewed: 320 kbps mp3
Label: Hammerheart Records Official | Bandcamp
Websites: searbliss.hu | searblisshhr.bandcamp.com | facebook.com/searblissband
Releases Worldwide: July 6th,2 2018
- As I edited this review, I discovered that the track list that compiled in my media player is completely different from the final track order. This is extremely weird considering that the track order I’ve been listening to for the past couple of weeks makes for excellent pacing and flow. ↩
- Yes, this review is really late, but, unfortunately, our promotional materials indicated a late August release date. ↩