The San Francisco music scene is nothing if not creative. With oddball acts like Hammers of Misfortune, Vhöl and Slough Feg calling the area home, creativity is in abundant supply. Worm Ouroboros is yet another off-kilter act providing local color to the Bay Area, lesser known but no less interesting. The brain-trust of Lorraine Rath and Jessica Way, the band’s unique blend of dark ambient goth-rock, doom and neo-folk is as interesting as it is offbeat. With well-travelled drummer Aesop Dekker (Vhöl, ex-Agalloch, ex-Ludicra) on board, they released two atmospheric platters full of introspective trance-groove, with 2012s Come the Thaw really impressing yours truly. It’s taken them some time to produce new material, but What Graceless Dawn picks up right where Come the Thaw left off and delivers more of their mood-drenched, darkly ethereal compositions. Minimalist, stark, dream-like and beautiful, this is the near-perfect companion piece to Esben and the Witch‘s Older Terrors opus, and will appeal to the same demographic. It isn’t metal in the truest sense, but it’s doomy and dark to be sure.
The album opens softly with the bewitching vocals of Rath and Way set against soft ambient effects and minimalist instrumentation. Dekker, regarded as one of the hardest hitting drummers in the business, scarcely upbraids the skins with his nuanced playing and all seems to drift in a dreamy fog for the first seven minutes before erupting into the kind of post-metal trilling Agalloch once specialized in. I’d hesitate to say it gets heavy, but it feels that way after such a long, lullaby-induced fugue state. It’s a well-executed song, but a bit thin on actual music for the listener to cling to in the sea of ambient emptiness.
“Broken Moments” is much more what I’ve come to expect from Worm Ouroboros, situating itself someplace between goth-wave acts like The Eden House and Dyonisis and defunct melancholy doomers, The Third and the Mortal. It’s achingly beautiful in its bare bones delivery, with the haunting vocals of Rath and Way mainlining sadness right into your veins. The guitar is much more present here, offering reverb-heavy goth rock riffs and forlorn harmonies to go with the heartbreaking choir. Fortunately the rest of What Graceless Dawn is more in line with this song, with “Suffering Tree” nailing the bleak goth-landscapes of 80s acts like Fields of Nephilim, while “Ribbon of Shadow” dials up the urgency and grit ever so slightly (after 8 minutes or so) and introduces vaguely ominous post-metal riffs, arriving at what I might call “sleepy-time doom.”
Overall the album has a lovely ebb and flow but there are issues. I totally understand what the band is going for with their unhurried compositional style and more often than not their long-form writing results in hypnotic set pieces, but some of these songs are just too long-winded. What “Day” attempts musically doesn’t justify its nine-minute length, and though “Ribbon of Shadow” really pops once it gets going, it takes far too long to get to the get going place. Sound-wise things are quite lush and vibrant. The vocals aren’t over-prominent and float nicely in the mix, as do the various shades of guitar strumming. Dekker doesn’t get to do a whole hell of a lot drum-wise but his kit sounds warm and organic.
The Worm Ouroboros template is built around the vocal melodies and harmonies of Rath and Way and they never fail to enchant and beguile as their voices entwine and weave together. My only complaint is I’d like to hear more diversity in their delivery. There’s never a harsh edge or bitter tone to their angelic voices, and if they spit some venom occasionally it would have quite an impact. Jessica Way’s guitar-work is often perfect for the music, ranging from goth-standard strumming to darker, edgier riffing. Like the vocals though, the guitar never cuts loose and at its most aggressive it’s still far from what we think of as “heavy.” I know that’s not what they’re about, but again, a little diversity can make a big difference. As mentioned above, Dekker doesn’t get to shine much on such laid-back songs, but he does give the music a solid backbone and when he gets a chance, the classic pop in his playing can still be heard.
What Graceless Dawn is another dark and elegant musical landscape, full of melancholy and romantic longing. It might not be the right concoction for the average metal fan, but it’s a poignant and emotional album with a lot to offer the patient listener. It will transport you to another place if you let it, and that alone makes it worth the price.