I’ve bet you’ve never heard of Vouna. I certainly haven’t. However, I bet you have heard of Wolves in the Throne Room. If you haven’t, I’m banishing you from this review until you’ve heard Two Hunters. We good? Good. The WITTR project has always been an interesting beast because of its versatility across metal subgenres—They’re definitely black metal, but their sound also incorporates aspects of post-black, ambient black, folk metal, and “Cascadian.” Vouna is a funeral doom act from Olympia, Washington, consisting of lone member Yianna Bekris. Her labor of loneliness, this self-titled debut was created with the assistance of Wolves in the Throne Room’s Weaver brothers, being recorded at their studio, Owl Lodge, and the artwork created in collaboration with Nathan Weaver. Its premise lies in the perspective of “becoming the last person on earth” with influences in Finnish funeral doom, Greek folk music, and Eastern European black metal. All of which could easily go either way—tacky or intriguing.
Vouna professes to be funeral doom, but you won’t find any early Ahab or Tyranny-esque one-beat-per-minute, ‘we-put-the-fun-in-funeral-doom lurching subterranean brutality’ here. Instead, Bekris opts for the gloomy and mournful doom core akin to Katatonia, My Dying Bride or Subrosa, punctuated by extreme metal influences and folk melodies. And while comparisons to the Cascadian metal scene are fair, this album’s atmosphere is almost incomparable to anything else. Its blackened retro synth-based tone (a la Hardangervidda-era Ildjarn or Die Festung-era Paysage d’Hiver) creates an odd dichotomy of the nature-based mysticism (as its setting at Owl Lodge suggests) and a distinct nostalgic electronic flavor. Vouna is an exercise in balance, complimenting its ancient flavor with impressive blackened atmosphere without being excessively metallic. Each song is built around and driven by keyboard, which draws comparisons to organ-abusing complainers like Skepticism and Mournful Congregation, but hardly feels plagiarized or ham-fisted.
While the album’s originality and premise offer a solid hook, its dynamics are the real star of the show. “A Place to Rest” is a fantastic opener, capitalizing on mournful and bleak tones, plodding thunderous drums, and woeful singing, a blistering and apocalyptic atmosphere enhanced (not damaged, surprisingly) by a blackened tremolo and blast beat section. “Cattle” would sound right at home on Agalloch’s The Mantle, offering folky guitar plucking and flute with ambient synth textures, covered by simple but gracefully done clean vocals. Beginning with “Last Dream,” closers “Drowning City” and “You Took Me” build upon desperation, creating a surprisingly catchy and melancholic ending to the album. As a whole, Bekris’ vocals are simple, subdued or absent, and exist only to enhance the song if it’s needed, hence they are absent on “Cattle” but appropriately steal the show to soaring new heights on “Drowning City” or “You Took Me.” Guitars are heavy but, like vocals, only enhance the sound set by the synth. Drums are mostly audible, plodding and thunderous in execution, and downright juicy.
While Vouna’s strengths are plain through the five tracks, the album’s flaws lie in its strength: its patient attitude can lead to excessive repetition or meandering songwriting. “Last Dream”, for instance, utilizes the same (albeit initially punchy) folk melody through its five minutes, the repetition taking away from its power. Similarly, the melody of “Cattle” can often appear directionless and meandering, tempting listeners to hit “next.” The songwriting of closer “You Took Me,” conversely, adapts a going-in-with-no-lube attitude, which compromises its initially gentle atmosphere violently with a black/doomy wrecking ball of sound (although the strength of the song thereafter compensates). Vouna could also be argued to be the mere result of its influences, as its respective folk-based and epic doom songwriting don’t seem to mesh, and its stark contrast can be initially jarring.
Yianna Bekris has some fantastic mentors in the Weaver brothers, and the Vouna project shows it. Its dichotomous atmosphere, original sound, and intriguing premise offer a great and concise 32-minute experiment (leaving us wanting more!), even if it is somewhat marred by its youth and compromised by its obvious Agalloch, Katatonia, and Skepticism worship. Some seamless musical stitching and honed songwriting is in order, then Bekris could be hitting doom runs! She doesn’t need a priest to confess her synths. She just needs to address the elephant in the doom, folks. Or get black to what she’s doing. Or whatever.