December is usually not the best time to go for a dip in the promo sump. Historically this is the month where we get deluged with re-releases and more low-fi basement black metal than a barrel full of Vardans could churn out in a fortnight. It takes a steady hand to reach into the brackish murk and pull out something promising, and fortunately, nothing is as steady as the iron hand ov Steel. That brings us to the new release by UK experimental Goth/doom act The River. Formed by Christian Leitch (40 Watt Sun, ex-Warning), they created some buzz with their 2006 debut Drawing Down the Sun due to its blend of droning doom and highly melodic female vocals. With similarities to The Gathering as well as indie acts like Shakespeare’s Sister and The Cranberries, some even dubbed the end product doom-pop, though that doesn’t do the music justice. The band has been silent since 2009s sophomore outing In Situ, save for a 2013 EP, and this week finally sees their return with Vessels into White Tides. Vocalist Vicky Waters has been replaced by new voice Jenny Newton, but the recipe is much the same as before – doomy, droning passages gilded with soft crooning and indie-rock influences. And as before the style pays dividends and leads to some haunting, engaging music. December isn’t all bad after all.
Vessels sees The River working more extensively with long-form songwriting than before, and opener “Vessels” is an 11-minute odyssey through ethereal melancholy, marrying slow-motion doom leads with Newton’s soft, fragile vocals. The pairing and overall presentation weaves a droning, hypnotic web that sucks you in and keeps you enthralled even as the music takes its sweet time getting where it’s going. Newton has a sweet, soothing voice that commands attention, and the band uses her vocal talents to maximum effect. Even at 11 minutes, “Vessels” feels captivating, and I suspect many will wish it was even longer. “Into White” ups the ante with a 15-minute sojourn through the beauty in darkness, mixing doom elements with softer indie rock influences. Sometimes the music reminds me of Autumn‘s early material and at points the guitar work is reminiscent of Tuomas Saukkonen’s Black Sun Aeon project. Making a 15-minute song not only listenable but beguiling is no small feat, and I never feel like I want to move things along or hurry the song to its conclusion.
There are no misfires among the 5 tracks, and the album’s 46:36 flows by like the titular body of water with no moments feeling over or underdone. I love the strong The Gathering vibe on “Passage” and once again I’m left impressed that a long song (nearly 10-minute) can float by so effortlessly and leave me wanting more. My only real quibble with the album is the absence of vocals on closer “Tides.” It’s a lush piece of music but I find myself missing Newton’s voice as it drifts along lazily.
After gaining notoriety drumming for 40 Watt Sun and Warning, it’s interesting to hear Christian Leitch take a turn as guitarist. He does a fine job of it too, channeling a host of doom, drone, indie and Goth ideas. His style comes closest to his former act Warning, and at times the material feels like a smart collaboration between them and Mandylion era The Gathering. His playing is about setting and maintaining a mood and nothing more, and the album is without solos of any sort. Truthfully, they would feel out of place considering the grey, melancholy tableau the material so carefully crafts. Simple riffs, subtle harmonies and digressions carry the load and do it very well. Less is more in its purest form.
A ten year absence seems to have done The River no harm and left no rust, as Vessels into White Tides is a beautiful and immersive album equally well suited for wintry introspection and the blossoming hope of spring. If you’re unfamiliar with The River, this is a great entry point and their most polished, mature outing. December can be a sleepy month music-wise, but don’t sleep on this one if you fancy a change up from all the scorching and blasting that metal has gifted us with in 2019.