After receiving permission from the AMG overlords to access the fiery promo pits, my initial reaction was that of an overly giddy child experiencing Christmas for the first time. But when I began to comb through the flames of unassigned promos on stakeout for my first shiny new album to review as a non-n00b, my glee quickly morphed into bewilderment followed by mild desperation. I made it a game to try to find an available band whose genre lacked the term “core.” Then I found Thief, at which point I breathed a sigh of relief. Thief is the pet project of Dylan Neal, a dulcimer player (dulcimist?) for the unconventional experimental black metal band Botanist. Thief’s music takes on a different theme entirely, however, from Botanist’s quirky style of environmentally themed “green-metal.” Map of Lost Keys, Thief’s sophomore album, swaps the hammered dulcimer for a myriad of electronics to produce late night music designed for haunted ballrooms and electric churches. While no traditional black metal demon shrieks or vicious tremolo picking can be heard on Map of Lost Keys, Thief remain obstinate in their attempt to appeal to fans of heavier genres. I was eager to spin this album and assess whether Thief’s open invitation to metalheads makes sense.
Neal’s idea to bridge the gap between ancient sounds of the past with those of the future began during his time with Botanist. When I discovered his inspirations include sacred Christian vocal music, Gregorian chants, and the limitlessness of electronic music, the skeptic inside me stirred. Limitlessness of electronic music? That could mean anything. Though I’ve now listened to Map of Lost Keys too many times to count—on the bus, during my tempo runs, splayed out on the couch late at night—I still haven’t completely nailed down the specific variety of dark electronics Thief is after. Each listen reveals new subtle elements, and every experience is different from the last. Despite this, a few threads consistently hold true across listens. Map of Lost Keys is unfailingly gripping and, to my relief, as bleak and ominous as most black metal albums. Black metal enthusiasts and fans of knob twiddling alike, it’s safe over here!
While the closest stylistic point of comparison to Map of Lost Keys is the experimental collective Ulver, Thief is by no means following in their footsteps. Thief is arguably more sparse and jarring, but these qualities in no way detract from the album’s intensity. Nuggets of surprise are buried in every nook and cranny. From the haunting sound of the theremin on opening track “Vesper” to retro video game sound effects, from the middle eastern inspired sounds kicking off “Pyromancy” to choral chants, and from the drum ‘n’ bass tinged “Holy Regicide” to spoken word, these captivating quirks kept me on my toes. The syrupy last track “Spirit Archery” starts off in a mid-tempo groove, combines almost all the aforementioned quirks, and opens up to reveal the most beautiful and thoughtful of ambient outros. Listening to the final minutes, which are oddly reminiscent of Radiohead’s ballad “Daydreaming,” genuinely makes me feel as though my body is amorphous.
Sadly, Map of Lost Keys is not all rainbows and unicorns. My chief gripe with Thief’s second album is the lack of fluidity throughout the 41-minute runtime. The tracks feel disjointed due to their brief nature. Save for “Spirit Archery,” many of the numbers don’t have enough meat to bite into to truly make an impression. I have to believe that with additional time to simmer, Neal’s ideas would sound more cohesive. Given that a slew of bands I never fail to enjoy (Alcest, Les Discrets, Darkher) have all graced Prophecy Production’s gilded halls, I was expecting something a little more grandiose. Lastly, the high production quality is not a saving grace but an expectation when you’re on Prophecy’s roster.
If you go into listening to Thief’s sophomore album expecting traditional black metal, you may be sorely disappointed. Map of Lost Keys undoubtedly takes nods from Neal’s experimental metal background but still fits squarely in the dark ambient electronic bucket when it comes to explicit labeling. It is as much a black metal record as Wolves in the Throne Room’s Celestite or Perturbator’s Dangerous Days are. Only for the more exploratory black metal fans or those intrigued by the music played for smoky, Neuromancer-themed cyberpunk-esque dancefloors can I give a fervent recommendation.