(This excessive treatise is continued from my review of Bath)
You can already tell the second album is going to be different from how it opens. Completely abandoning the soft, melodic introduction, "Stones of October's Sobbing" instead begins with an almost dissonant combination of winds and acoustic guitar which begins to build into a massive doom-laden epic, the various brass instruments lending their warmer colours to the already dark song. The following song, "Gleam in Ranks", is the only true song on either album that might be called remotely straightforward in its composition. It's a mostly standard thrash metal piece, but with much more tension from the symphonic keyboards and recurring piano melody. Interestingly, the vocals, while still aggressive, very rarely become harsh, opting instead for a few precision-placed screams and guttural melodicism to underlie some of their darkest lyrics yet.
This album's epic, "Bizzare Flowers / A Violent Mist", begins with bright chiming bells accordingly melodic vocals, triumphal and epic yet retaining an unmistakable sense of sorrow. The song then becomes amibent and distant, with a black-metal based combination of moaning and screaming, slowly forming into a few loud chants, loud enough to shake the earth with their weight. The third interlude is more of a fully developed piece than the other two, a solo acoustic passage with some light percussive backing that slowly introduces sweet string, wind, and brass leads. It's very pastoral and folksy, again acting as a small uplifting moment to keep the listener from being too far overcome with despair.
As if to drive the point home, "The Curve That to an Angle Turn'd" is as heavy as being trod upon by the combined military forces of a small European country, full of atonal melodies and dissonant blares. This is paired alongside an incredibly heartfelt vocal duet, immensely fragile and emotional. "Sleep is a Curse" is another mostly solo acoustic piece, uplifting musically and featuring one of the rare moments of uplifting lyrics on either album.
"Riseth He, The Numberless" occupies the centre of the album, announcing its own pompousness with a royal trumpet introduction. It sets the stage well, as the entire song is best described as regal, commanding your respect and attention at all times. Distant, torturous screams play in the background as an introduction to almost angelic, harp-based melodies that provide the most cruelly tormenting and cathartic moment yet. Finally reaching the last stretch, the fourth and longest interlude begins merely with sleigh bells and acoustic guitars, eventually developing to include the full band. This leads directly into the finale, "Monstrously Low Tide", a fitting end to the preceding 122 minutes of intensity the deep choral backing ensuring that the piece will remain firmly in mind. If you're me, you're going to need a breather by this point; those last two hours have been the most intense you're likely to ever listen to.
I can't recall ever having heard these albums responded to with serious contempt or censure. The only somewhat legitimate musical complaint I've ever seen leveraged against these albums is that they lack cohesion or direction; while the individual pieces may be stunning or beautiful in their own individual ways, the whole product can seem aimless to some listeners. This is actually a valid observation, and in fact, the first time you listen to these two albums together, it may well seem like the songs are wandering without actually arriving anywhere. However, as you gain a deeper appreciation for the music, their overall momentum becomes much clearer. Granted, it's incredibly subtle and still very difficult to detect, but the pieces on both albums do have a definite direction and purpose to them, and though it takes two hours to get there, the evolution from soft and pastoral to unbridled metal ferocity, when fully appreciated, is absolutely to die for.
These albums were composed for people with an appreciation for the wide spectrum and variety of musical possibilities; you must be broad-minded in order to fully appreciate what maudlin of the Well have accomplished here. Fans of soft rock or doom metal alone will not be able to understand the ways in which each shift in tone compliments the other, or the ways in which they all express different facets of the same core idea.
You'll notice that I haven't spoken at all about any changes to the reissued versions of these albums. That's because there are exactly two changes, and only one of them is much to speak of. Firstly, each of the albums on Blood Music's reissue contains a bonus demo track, different from the ones included in the 2005 Dark Symphonies reissue. It's a nice thought, but I'm I'm not a huge fan of demos in principle and the ones included here are no exception. They're just lower-quality versions of tracks we've just heard, and given the depth and complexity of the pieces, hearing them in anything less than crystal-clear quality won't do them justice, let alone effect the full breadth of musicality they've produced. Die-hard completionists will be thankful that there is at least some change from previous reissues, but almost all other listeners can safely ignore them.
The other reissue bonus is much better, however: Antithetic's version of the 4xLP comes a download for "The Secret Song", a single released by the band later in 2001 as an addendum to the duology. The fact that this song is on neither album itself is a crime; it's clearly one of the strongest individual songs in the entire two-album suite. Though an artistic balance in tracklisting and running time is maintained between the two halves by eliminating it, it's a shame that this wonderful song had to be excised, and its inclusion here is absolutely welcome.
If you take nothing else from my review, at least hear this request: please go find these albums, whether it be on YouTube, or your favourite .mp3 store, or Kayo Dot's bandcamp, or even from either of the record labels that have reissued it, and listen to them. If you're willing to give these albums the attention they deserve, I promise you nothing short of a musical experience I can only describe, completely without hyperbole or irony, as magical.
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