For just a moment I’m going to break Angry Metal Guy‘s most sacred of journalistic vows to explain how Sojourner‘s The Shadowed Road ended up in my undeserving hands. Occasionally, one of our editors will send out an office-wide memo requesting a quick turnaround on a high profile review. Such was the case with Sojourner’s sophomore effort, and while this Swede-Kiwi joint venture yielded a decent debut in 2016’s Empires of Ash, what I perceived as a safe, derivative take on the atmospheric black/folk formula failed to hoist me up on the bandwagon. Volunteering to cover its follow-up, then, was an action born as much from curiosity as it was from a desire to stem undeserved hype. Well, fuck me running, because this time the hype is more than deserved. Though not without its drawbacks, The Shadowed Road is an unprecedented evolution of Sojourner’s sound that feels utterly fresh in a thoroughly exhausted field.
Much of The Shadowed Road’s freshness is due to the fact that, in many ways, it’s reluctant to pigeonhole itself as a black metal release. Where many records of this style are content to plod along with dissonant chords and basic tremolo lines, Sojourner’s toolset is one that is rhythmically and melodically nuanced. Its lead guitar lines, which are so grand as to feel like they stretch to the ends of the Earth, are as melancholic as they are epic; their atmosphere invokes the grandiose sorrow of Swallow the Sun or the dreaminess of Alcest as often as it does Howard Shore’s Lord of the Rings score. At the same time, the album is rhythmically weighty; instances like the crunchy riffs in “Titan” or the bouncing snare patterns in “Where Lost Hope Lies” lend tangible heft typically found on melodeath recordings. Such dense and tonally ambitious compositions could have resulted in a disastrous hodgepodge, yet TSR is executed with such focus that it feels not only compelling but downright transportive.
The only thing that periodically breaks Sojourner’s spell is some occasionally spotty songwriting on The Shadowed Road’s back-end. “Our Bones Among the Ruins” works as a breather between the record’s exhaustive epics, being a relatively straightforward excursion into pagan black metal, but it lacks the majesty that defines the rest of the album as a result. The following track, “Where Lost Hope Lies,” is the record’s longest cut yet fails to justify its length; there are plenty of engaging rhythms and leads, but its ideas seem to run dry halfway through. Yet TSR’s prime cuts deftly navigate pitfalls commonly associated with long-form atmo-black compositions; “Ode to the Sovereign” and “The Shadowed Road” fare especially well in this regard, with melodies that constantly surge forward to reach incredible, climactic heights. The title track, in particular, may very well take the crown as my Song o’ the Year. The exceptional melodies, coupled with Chloe Bray’s emotionally naked performance, are nothing short of breathtaking.
Bray’s singing – which better balances the blackened rasps of Emilio Crespo thanks to increased prevalence over Sojourner’s debut – makes for one of several performances that grant the band noticeably more character than the majority of modern acts performing tonally similar music. The guitar presence is impressively dense, with three layers of riffs playing at most times to cover low-end rhythm, high-end tremolo, and lead duties, while drummer Riccardo Floridia cleverly steers the compositions into new time signatures at regular intervals to keep the rhythms fresh and inject a slight prog bent into the proceedings. From an engineering perspective, the rhythm section sounds quite impressive, with warm, full tones that nicely fill out the bottom end and balance out the lead guitar and tin whistle. The mixing could use some work, though; the guitars and drums are evenly spaced, but Bray’s cleans are a bit too subdued, and the bass and synths are so buried as to only be properly audible during the record’s quieter moments.
Minor mixing and songwriting issues aside, The Shadowed Road is a remarkable leap over its predecessor, indicative of an unexpectedly ambitious group that places genuine care into improving and setting themselves apart from the pack. Atmospheric black metal releases tend to be strong growers for me, so even though the score below might not seem to imply as much, this could very well end up with at least an honorable mention on my year-end list given a bit more time to marinate. If you’re keen to hear a unique, genre-blurring take on the style, don’t miss what Sojourner’s been cooking.