Well composed, ambitious, labyrinthine black metal is one of the things I am constantly in search for. It's not that I've heard so many exemplars of this kind to end up growing addicted to it (Emperor, Dissection in the old days, Deathspell Omega and Blut Aus Nord in the modern are some of these few) but it's more like, that I haven't. As Deathspell Omega have told, black metal seems like a big promise - its purpetrators seem to have hit a deep vein, but so far have only managed to scratch its surface. It seems reasonable to think that if these progenitors (speaking about bands such as Burzum or Darkthrone) have channelled such great energies with what seems to have been a punk, guttural, feral approach, then some intellectual, reflective, artistically endowed individual should be able to harness and shape them in order to materialize a much greater potential. It is a hypothesis that has seldom come into fruition - many modern approaches according to common belief seem to lack a spiritual substance -mostly honesty and willpower, which creates a popular, nowadays, view that black metal is a thing of the subconscious, of the dark, and shouldn't be mixed with rational, clear-headed approaches.
Darkenhöld is the direct offspring of Artefact, a french band which has had a limited success in forging their own path of ambitious black metal, mainly with their 2008 album Ruins. Epic, melodic, elaborate, (hopelessly? )romantic in their medieval/fantasy obsessions, but also inconsistent compositionally in the sum of all parts, Artefact broke up after a crisis of identity that involved a modernization moreso of their image rather than their sound, under the perhaps, reflective title of "Failure", an ep of four songs. I was very interested when I discovered that Aldebaran, the main composer had started another band that whole-heartedly re-embraced the fantastical, medieval mythos. Personally, I always preferred metal as wild, unfettered, junevile fantasy rather then cold, austere realism. Not only because of the allure of escapism or poetic metaphor, but also because metalheads are usually introverts who more directly and boldly express themselves through simulated realities, exactly like rpg "nerds", apparently. I imagine Aldebaran sitting in his chair worried, thinking his ass about his next artistic incarnation, and suddenly bursting out "Fuck all that shit! I'm really all about fantasy metal, gargoyles and dragons and castles."
Darkenhöld are hardly subtle in their lyrical and pictorial references; as with Artefact, everything seems to have come off from a D&D campaign. While the titles are bereft of any significant meaning apart of setting a visual scenery, the music suggests much more. It is comprised of melodic, evolving riffs that twist and turn, alternating emotions during their course. Guitars and bass move in counterpoint without this ever turning into a gimmick and betraying the conception of the riff, with just enough variations to successfully imbue an aura of classical symphony to otherwise traditional heavy metal songwriting (also due to there being a greater reliance to black metal melodic devices comparing to heavier/speedier Artefact). This is music with intricacies that are overseen at first listenings (especially at low volumes), perhaps underestimated because of the seemingly cliched style, but mostly due to the density and interweavement of the ideas. Some melodies for instance need to be mentally followed actively and in conjunction with the harmonic structure underneath in order to make sense. The production, unlike a typical heavy metal sound, does not seem much interested in power but rather in clarity, which will also make this band a write-off for many. (By the way, I notice that the album becomes much more aggressive when I roll of some bass frequencies below 500 hz, it seems mastering could have been a little more daring). The music itself, or to be more correct, the esoteric impetus which lies behind its creation, is also unlike to typical black metal; it reaches for wonder, awe, beauty, majesticness. It definitely does not forfeit power, however it seems mostly oblivious of the rawer, harder side of life.. It is like an rpg session where you get the awe and wonder but none of the pain. While this not necessarily a problem, I feel that Darkenhold can better expand their vision by going into less safer passages, rather than further elaborating in their already much trodden ones. We should perhaps remember that the greatest experiences in life are in fact a mix of negativity and positivity, tragedy and hope, beauty and rawness.
I find "A Passage..." best at its fiercer, epic and more dynamic, like in the opener "Ghouls and the Tower" and the spectacular middle to end part of "Citadel of Obsidian Slumber", but not as good at the sometimes anemic turns its melodicism takes ("Cleaving the Ethereal Waves"). To be honest, it's hard to pick out songs as examples in this album, as most of them share a similar combination of elements, genre-wise and quality-wise; meaning that there are some defining strong moments, some ok-ish and also a couple that are a bit disappointing throughout the songs. To get back to what I have suggested in the first paragraph, Darkenhöld, together, of course, with the majority of modern talented but unrecognized black metal bands, seem to be indeed missing something in comparison to the great makers or classic black metal. Its fortunately not honesty or passion here, and definitely not technicality and elaboration, but perhaps the artistic imagination or boldness to break boundaries of familiarity and expectedness. That there are no lyrics also doesn't help. There are bands such as Wolves in the Throne Room where the inclusion of a mediocre lyric would destroy an atmosphere that is so purely evocative and pictorial by its own. In Darkenhöld, it would be worth to try to provide the addition of another "dimension" to the imaginary wandering of the music, as it seems there is the space for it.
This in an interesting band, as was Artefact, in that it is talented and ambitious enough to look up a level ahead and aim for perfection, but never quite getting there. It seems likely that Aldebaran is struggling hard to create an album that will become classic and lift off his band off from an underground status. "A Passage.." for all its merits is not yet that album, but funnily enough, I just saw an announcement for a preview of the next Darkenhöld album at some website as I had already begun writing this review. People that are persistent in their vision are admirable, and even though it may not now or ever be perfect, they deserve and claim attention rightfully. So, let's see what the future holds for Darkenhöld.