It’s not enough for new album releases these days to crow that they’re the work of a single person. The novelty of a sole individual stitching together a trove of instruments and producing a handcrafted, free-range, conflict-free album has long since worn off. There needs to be more – some sort of hook to separate itself from the horde of other releases jockeying to gnaw at our aural pleasure centers. With a concept built around snake handling, Fire of the Spirit is the latest release by Paul Ravenwood, whose band Twilight Fauna is described as “a blackened-folk solo project devoted to telling the often forgotten stories of the Appalachian Mountains.” Ravenwood has been peddling his music for only a few short years but in that time he’s produced a swathe of EPs, split releases and full-length albums. Unfamiliar with his work, I was curious to find out whether Twilight Fauna could pique my interest.
The album opens with “Walking with the Ghost” and first impressions are mixed. It’s a stilted, drawn-out number littered with simple acoustic strumming, plodding, reverb-laden clean electric notes and the odd bit of pre-recorded dialogue. Midway through the track, muted black metal riffs suddenly and awkwardly burst through the reverie with as much subtlety as the Kool-Aid Man crashing through a wall. “A Green Moth in the Mist” doubles-down on the low-fi riffage whilst bringing in some raspy vocals and the odd bit of feverish percussion. “Laying out the Fleece” offers a welcome change of pace in contrast to the murky slog that preceded it as it’s comprised solely of acoustic guitar. This pleasant instrumental piece is richly evocative and mercifully doesn’t overstay its welcome. That track aside, Fire of the Spirit is saddled with a persistent flaw: it struggles to finish what it starts. Most of the songs have a couple of good ideas but they’re run into the ground with little variety of tone or texture. The ponderously long running time of most of the tracks only serves to highlight this fact. When you’re Napalm Death you can get away with minimal chord progression because the songs only last as long as a mayfly’s sex life.
Stylistically I feel that the black metal tag sets up the wrong expectations. The prevalence of stretched out, feedback laden chords puts the music closer to Sunn O))) than something like Darkthrone. In some ways Agalloch are the closest analog but considering Fire of the Spirit’s primitive juxtaposition of acoustic and distorted guitar it’s Agalloch filtered through Google Translate.
Thematically, the undulating, trance-like nature of the music could be seen as an interpretation of the Pentecostal snake handling rituals of the area but trying to infer meaning with the little material presented is an onerous task. Perhaps this back-to-basics approach could be interpreted as Ravenwood’s repudiation of the bloated, self-indulgent excess exhibited by many “passion projects” out there. But it goes too far in the other direction. Fire of the Spirit isn’t satisfied with simply cutting out the fat, it strips away the sinew, scoops out the organs and grinds down the bones until all that’s left is the twinkle in the milkman’s eye.
At its core Fire of the Spirit is not a bad album, it just feels unfinished. There are some genuinely enjoyable sections but the songs rarely build towards anything meaningful. Out of the tracks on offer, “Anointing Oil” is the one that stands out the most, as it successfully unites the chiaroscuro of heavy and light guitar through some deft composition. Even here however the track struggles to live up to its potential, never truly giving the listener the payoff that an epic, nine-minute song demands.
From a production standpoint the respectable dynamic range on offer gives the instruments room to breathe but this is squandered for the most part by an atonal mix that robs the music of richness and leaves the overall sound distant and impersonal. My time spent with the album wasn’t by any means unpleasant but whenever I got through the six tracks I would struggle to recall what I’d just heard. Despite its interesting premise, Fire of the Spirit ultimately fails to separate itself from the pack.