After working my way through most of the most classic series of high fantasy novels everyone’d recommend to a teenager in the mid-90’s I’d reached an impasse, a damned fork in the road forward that could only go two ways. The first was a dark trail down the realms of ‘cutting teeth’ novelizations, such as those exploring Magic: The Gathering‘s greater lore. These were the sort of novels a newer writer would land to show what they could do with an outline, a pre-determined plot they’d fill with the world-building already complete and established. It wasn’t shitwork but they’re not exactly high art or known for being anything but impulse items for kids who’d really needed an extra stocking stuffer that wasn’t more goddamn Magic cards. The second path forward was the lower shelves beneath the classics, the second and third tier high fantasy writers who might’ve gotten their place by sheer force of prolific work and completion of arcs. Of course I’d wanted to avoid novelization as much as possible, and a much less keen internet had suggested that I tried David Eddings due to my devouring of Moorcock and Jordan. Though I wouldn’t apply the revelation that followed to music until several years later, my tearing through Eddings’ Elenium and Tamuli series would generate some understanding of the ‘genre entry’, the sort of book that aims for its audience and knows that one book could snare the reader into buying six, or more, just like it. The writing was dry and the descriptions of events were often weirdly bare and drawn out but, by providing a new and different world to daydream within it became impossible to write off Eddings’ work. This of course applies directly to the vast majority of heavy metal music that releases today as the only hope of being noticed lies squarely upon how closely that record might fit into sub-genre standards. There is a remarkably clear language created between consumer and creator in this sense, where an album cover, a production style, a lyrical theme, etc. all often cumulatively express taste and effort level. If you’d naturally think a defiant approach would create the wave of the future, it’ll more often than not simply represent what someone else had already done before depending on your perspective. Toronto, Canada based epic heavy/doom metal band Smoulder have achieved their professional entrance into the realm of traditional heavy metal knowing the exact language appropriate for their debut and this bodes well for the inherent intelligence expressed within what is essentially a ‘genre-entry’ approach.
If that’d all felt a bit stark and belabored trust that it wasn’t an elaborate dagger in the butt, but an appreciation for the detailed appearances and style that Smoulder arrive bearing. Much like the earlier forays into music from the prolific Chris Black (Pharaoh, High Spirits, Dawnbringer), Smoulder come by the hand of a now well-established and visible heavy metal critic/online personality, vocalist Sarah Kitteringham. This is beneficial for the epic heavy metal sphere of influence simply because Kitteringham‘s visibility always reflects a passion for traditional heavy metal and classic doom metal though outlets she’s aligned with (such as BangerTV) can’t help but pander to the lowest common denominator to stay afloat, anyone aligned with Bandcamp should be seen as a positive force for the independent side of the music industry all the same. None of that really affects the sound of Smoulder and those looking for an accessible and mainstream release will surely not hear the references to Kitteringham‘s deep-diving taste in metal throughout ‘Times of Obscene Evil and Wild Daring’. Do long-standing critics and journalists make for good musicians? Traditionally, yes but before I get sidetracked in the history of journalists in heavy metal beyond 1980… Smoulder would originally conceive in 2013 between Kitteringham and Shawn Vincent (Gatekrashör, ex-Hrom) but, the rest of the line-up would wax and wane until it’d seem to solidify with the addition of Collin Wolf and Kevin Hester of Illinois doomsters Olórin. A year ago their ‘The Sword Woman’ demo would spin up some hype and today we’re given this debut.
What’d aligned most closely with my taste on that first demo was its slightly compressed sound that was given space with Kitteringham‘s reverb-and-echo boosted voice. It felt like a traditional heavy metal kin to the spectacular King Witch album ‘Under the Mountain’ from that year, albeit with a less sophisticated sort of performance. The promise of that demo hinged upon an epic doom metal style that was perhaps closer to early Pagan Altar and the epic side of German doom metal today than ‘Times of Obscene Evil and Wild Daring’ ended up being. Instead this debut focuses on a less doom-oriented sound and doubles the intensity of the effects upon Kitteringham‘s vocals. A bit too ‘old school’ in tone to resemble a modern epic doom metal band (i.e. Atlantean Kodex) and not quite refined enough to reach the level of pomp as say, Visigoth, the listening experience at least fits into its own space within the ‘epic’ metal landscape in recent memory. Candlemass worship of the past comes close in describing the nature of ‘Times of Obscene Evil and Wild Daring’ but early Solitude Aeternus and Crypt Sermon‘s debut only hint at the pace of the movements rather than the sound. The general idea is clear enough and those seeking a slow and regal traditional heavy metal album will be sated.
After sitting with the album for just about a month I suppose the most polarizing aspect of Smoulder‘s debut is perhaps the most typical of any epic heavy metal legacy, the vocals are neither its downfall nor its savoir. Kitteringham is so drowned by her own echo throughout the narrative that it often distracts from the motion of the music. I understand that that level of reverb is a trip and adds some atmospheric value but, the cadence of the performance is so linear throughout it begins to sound like self-conscious obscuration. A doubled vocal track would have added power without blunting the effective jog of tracks like “Bastard Steel”, which still manages to stand out for its nods to early Lord Vicar. This’ll surely sound like a bit of hypocrisy on my part as I’ll soon be praising the idiosyncratic choices of Chevalier… but hey, they are two very different records. The vocals do a lot to create an exciting opening that energizes the spin through the first three tracks. Beyond that point things slip into a predictable rut that is only saved by the 9+ minute exit of “Black God’s Kiss”, here I’d say Kitteringham nails her part well above the par she’d set on previous tracks.
Though I’d turn a dark eye towards a couple of those later tracks, the standouts are so immediately clear that I see an already appreciable amount of promising achievement within Smoulder‘s debut. The fiery opener “Ilian of Garathorm” is not only the first of many Moorcock references in the lyrics but an undeniable heavy metal hook-fest that culminates into a chorus that’d wormed its way into my head immediately. This will be hard to look past and no doubt the more scrutiny prone won’t find anything here that’d top it, though I’d say they keep that energy up with “The Sword Woman” and the speed-metallic “Bastard Steel”. This is the vital core of the album and only because the finale was as grand as the opener could I highly recommend ‘Times of Obscene Evil and Wild Daring’. They have a ways to go for sure but again, the language of class pure heavy metal is spoken so eloquently that none should resist the full package in hand. For preview the obvious point of entry is “Ilian of Garathorm” but don’t pass it by until you’ve heard “Black God’s Kiss”.
Twisted passageways far below. 4.0/5.0
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