If you’re like me, today is like any other day. Maybe it starts with a game of tag with the snooze button, finally waking two hours later than you had “hoped.” Some people roll out of bed and zombie walk straight into the shower—unable to function without hot water shocking their senses. Some like to wake up and workout, others like to eat, and still, others down an entire pot of hot coffee.1 Regardless of the details, you’re dressed and heading to work. And, like most days, it’s starting well, you feel good and you’re awake. Before you know it, the day is halfway over. It’s lunchtime time and you know what that means: AMG time. You open your phone and you see this review at the top of the page. “Fucking Vardan?” you say. “Doesn’t AMG have an embargo on this guy?” you ask. Your mood has changed. Your day has flip-turned upside down. You can’t do this right now. You consider not reading the review. But you know that would be a mistake. You’re dying to know what lifted the embargo. You know you want an Unholy Lightless Summer.
For all the jabs, I don’t have an issue with Vardan (the man or the band). And I don’t believe Madam X does either. For those of you that don’t know the man (or his band), this dude has already released three full-length albums this year, not counting this one. Not to mention the five he released last year and the nine he released in 2015. Nine fucking albums? I know, that’s a bit odd. The thing is, none of them are bad. If anything, I’d say most are OK-to-good records. All have that traditional rawness of the genre, with a blanket of Vardan sadness. And that’s why we couldn’t pass this up. It’s not at all what I expected.
The part I did expect was that Unholy Lightless Summer is three songs in thirty-eight minutes. The other thing I expected was the song titles: “Unholy Lightless Summer Pt. 1,” “Pt. 2,” and “Pt. 3.” But, minus the dark moments of “Unholy Lightless Summer Pt. 2,” I didn’t expect the album to have an “uplifting” vibe. “Pt. 1” opens with soothing clean guitar that’s made more powerful by the bright bass melody and gentle cymbal raps. The vocals—if you want to call them that—are echoing shrieks that add nothing lyrically to the song but provide another instrumental layer. The only real deviation from this soundscape comes in the middle when the guitar becomes engulfed in hypnotizing effects. It’s a good opener with more to come.
With a twenty-one-minute runtime, you expect “Pt. 2” to pull out all the stops. And it does. But it does it without losing the chill vibe set by the opening track. The atmospheric guitar work is Alcestian and the sheets of keys instill a Tangerine Dream. And for over fifteen minutes, it plays on with building tension. When it breaks, you don’t get the kind of earth-shattering, black metal climax one might expect from other acts. The riffs become distorted and Vardan’s screams lash out in the most desperate way. But this is a gentle giant that needs a summit to match. And that’s exactly what you get.
The closing “Pt. 3” is also built around what happens in the last quarter of its lifespan. Where “Pt. 1” attempts to build up “Pt. 2,” and “Pt. 2” serving as the peak of the record, “Pt. 3” is the calm that follows the storm.2 “Pt. 1” may have its beautiful, clean-guitar intro but it has nothing on the intro of “Pt. 3.” From here, it begins to grow—unleashing a mixture of rasps and distant cleans, becoming more beautiful by the minute. And when it approaches the five-minute mark, my jaw drops to the floor. That simple strum is sad, yet uplifting, and sends me to my knees. It’s not going to be something you hear at your local motivational speaker rally but it ends Unholy Lightless Summer on a note I didn’t expect: a high one.
Unholy Lightless Summer is a true believer in the mantra that less is more. The result being that it’s built off repetitious meloblack atmospheres. I know this ain’t for everyone. But with most of the album being clean, and the mood being less than depressing, this record is a fun and relaxing listen. The vocals may not be great and “Pt. 1” is the weakest of the tracks. Unfortunately, the opener doesn’t go to any of the places “Pt. 2” and “Pt. 3” travel. But Unholy Lightless Summer has impressive dynamics and a mood that ought to surprise Vardan and non-Vardan fans alike.