One of the more fantastic evolutionary journeys to have arisen from the Chicago, Illinois area extreme thrash/death metal era of the late 80’s the full thirty year history of Novembers Doom is almost too much to reflect upon in the wake of eleven full-lengths between approximately six labels. It may appear reductive to the die-hard fan but there are certain paradigm shifts both leading up to their signing with The End Records for their popular ‘The Pale Haunt Departure’ (2005) record that inform the history of the band. Hell, if you’d like to skip my own recap founder/visionary Paul Kohr wrote a biography for the band years ago that’d later become a smartphone app entitled Novembers Doom: The Wayfaring Chronicles. The first big shift’d come between 1990 and 1992 where the original formation of the band under the name Laceration would shift from death/thrash metal unto death/doom metal on the ‘Scabs‘ demo tape. They’d clearly heard ‘Lost Paradise’ and been within earshot of Cianide and Contagion and this is where I’d discover the band (much later, mind you) in my exploration of United States death metal demo tapes. The next major leap was made between 1992 and 1994 where Laceration ended and Novembers Doom began with a (mostly) new line-up exploring a mixture of “Peaceville three” influenced death/doom metal that held some clear reverence for pure doom metal. At this point their 1995 debut full-length, ‘Amid Its Hallowed Mirth’ (1995) wasn’t too far a cry from groups like Avernus or Morgion and hadn’t fully taken on their own ‘dark metal’ style entirely. This is the point where most ‘old school’ death metal types draw the line as the next several albums established a ‘gothic’ dark metal sound still recognizable as Novembers Doom today though each album would bring something different along the way; Most notably the addition of guitarist/vocalist Larry Roberts would lend a lot to the development of the band through many line-up changes. These innovations could be major or minor depending on the release, ranging from greater Opeth-esque progressive influences (‘The Pale Haunt Departure’, 2005) and a slight return to death metal aesthetics (‘Aphotic’, 2011) it’d all accumulate into something uniquely Novembers Doom but certainly recognizable as modern dark metal throughout the 2000’s. With this in mind I’d certainly felt like this latest full-length, ‘Nephilim Grove’, is the record they’d wanted to make since 2013 but there were yet lessons to be learned along the way.
The last several releases from the band have focused on potency rather than quantity as Kohr and Roberts‘ increasingly layered approach to melody saw them packing each record with catchy and personally charged, death-tinged dark metal songs that aspire to be earworms that’re still heavy enough to thrill the greater melodic death/doom metal fandom. ‘Hamartia’ (2017) was a point of exit from The End Records that left Novembers Doom free agents and from my own perspective it is one of their least interesting releases, leaning back towards their early-to-mid 2000’s sound and focusing on some progressive variations that’d been less than dynamic. Landing upon Prophecy Productions here in 2019 finds the band realizing the potential their previous three records had been nudging towards. ‘Nephilim Grove’ is a boldly melodic dark metal record that verges on alternative and gothic metal throughout while continuing to gently incorporate a heady progressive flair into their driving and dynamic presence. It’d appear somewhat hyperbolic to suggest that this is Novembers Doom‘s finest release but it wouldn’t be out of line to say this is their most memorable and varietal full listen since at least 2011.
From front to back the tracklist features a ruthlessly alluring use of vocal harmony and phrasing that goes just a few steps beyond what Kohr had done with ‘clean’-sung vocals in the past. His approach now leans further away from the purely maudlin towards a driving, dramatic tonality that feels personal and performative at once allowing the extremity of ‘Nephilim Grove’ expand beneath him throughout. Chalk it up to the fresh start on a new label, an increasingly fruitful consistency of touring/recording staff, and plenty of good will earned over the last few decades but the (well uh, still dour) invigoration of Novembers Doom is appreciable here towards the end of 2019. What I’m getting at here is that there are two avenues for a band releasing their eleventh album: Dig into the past and cash in on the good will of your legacy or, push well beyond past achievements and create something new. From my own perspective, someone who’d cherry picked from their discography over the years (‘Amid Its Hallowed Mirth’, ‘The Pale Haunt Departure’, ‘Aphotic’ mostly), this was unexpectedly accessible and almost disgustingly so until it’d had it’s hooks in me within the second spin.
To be sure when Novembers Doom were plugging away at their craft throughout the first decade of the millennium I was hardly paying any mind to what most considered the ‘gothic’ spectrum of extreme doom metal style of music. Funeral doom would more or less fill that order. I won’t suggest that I am suddenly open to sitting through a Swallow the Sun or Novembre record today but, I’m far less allergic to the emotionally driven variety of music that these sorts of bands developed beyond their more primitive death metal aspirations early on. The most frank thoughts I’d place upon a record such as ‘Nephilim Grove’ is that it brings a certain higher standard of songwriting to what I’d consider a popular/accessible style of extreme metal; In simpler terms, a generalist metal radio show would do better to play any song from this album compared to any suggested peer because each brings a certain standard of either performative gust or inviting melodic eruption. That isn’t to say that every song is a ‘single’ but hell, some of these tracks are downright infectious to the point that I couldn’t manage any sort of elitist attitude beyond the third or so full listens.
“Petrichor” and “The Witness Marks” introduce the album employing a structural dynamic that should be immediately recognizable for folks who’d been exposed to the alternative metal of the early 2000’s. Sure, that sounds like a dig but consider the number of metal acts on larger labels experimenting with alternating harsh and clean vocal tones at the time. The one man ‘beauty and the beast’ version of loud-quiet-loud movements has evolved quite a bit since then, though, and Kohr/Novembers Doom infuse even those catchiest moments with a balanced amount of of modern progressive ‘dark metal’ flair; Consider the blasting drums that carry the bridge of “Petrichor” as a mark of solidarity between the extreme expectations of the band’s oeuvre that allows the album opener to read as more than a purely energizing track, and slightly veils just how slick its ear-clinging choruses are. I’m not suggesting that ‘Nephilim Grove’ sounds like a death metal band writing fuckin’ Nothingface or Stereomud songs, it sure doesn’t, but it isn’t a miserably esoteric dirge because the band have written songs that ‘move’ and make big musical statements with each jogging step. The two biggest hooks and sure singles follow in succession with the hauntingly rich gothic rock undertones of the title track “Nephilim Grove” and “What We Become”, with the former resembling ‘Silent Waters’ era Amorphis just enough to place Novembers Doom on that echelon of contemporary big-stage melodic metal acts. It aims big, sounds big, and manages to be a great big hook to return to over time. “Black Light” is where the momentum slows, it appears placed almost as a refrain set within between more memorable pieces some redemption comes with “The Clearing Blind”, a more typical Side B (or, Side C?) sort of song for the band that is as close to a ballad as they’ll get while building towards a finale. “The Obelus” is that grand finale and easily loops back to “Petrichor” for a very satisfying loop for repeated listening.
Describing a record from these guys as an ‘easy’ full listen with plenty of catchy songs feels entirely alien and that’d be a testament as to how different and I suppose inspired ‘Nephilim Grove’ is. Sure, this isn’t going to win over folks who’d expect them to claw back to their deepest roots in desperation but, I found it inspiring to see these old trees still ripping up roots and reaching for a new darker sun. I am comfortable highly recommending this latest Novembers Doom album, for its beauteous boldness as much as its bitingly melancholic irreverence. For preview purposes I’d suggest starting with “The Witness Marks” for a measure of progressive death metal and driving vocal hooks then the duo of the nakedly personal “What We Become” alongside the moving reprise of “Adagio”.
The dirt is blinding me. 4.0/5.0
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