To get to this high point within their emergent stage no doubt Toronto, Ontario based ‘arcane power doom’ metal band Smoulder appear calculated, not in the sinister or cynical sense but remarkably prepared with each next step and, with standards set high. Just as a Dungeons & Dragons group would employ intense preparations for an extended campaign so arrives each well-prepared item from the Canadian quintet with a high taste level in mind; Whether it is a demo tape or an arresting debut full-length there is no sense of naivete or ‘stumbling’ movement emanating from this project. When I’d reviewed ‘Times of Obscene Evil and Wild Daring‘ folks’d taken issue with the suggestion that it was a ‘genre-entry’ from diehard fans of epic forms of classic heavy metal, I suppose that’d only be because the value of being deeply entrenched in a particular style or genre niche is frightening to folk who operate without bold, passionate or fixated movements of their own. In my bubble it was a compliment and a thought that I’d still apply to ‘Dream Quest Ends’, the bands first EP release which is extended to a full length spin for the inclusion of the ‘The Sword Woman‘ demo, which hadn’t been immortalized in vinyl prior. Though I won’t review the demo itself there is great value in placing formative pieces next to the fully realized, impressive and internationally beloved Smoulder of today. It emphasizes the obvious, that they are driven fellowes that have undoubtedly refined at an ambitious rate.
Although the Canadian ‘keep it true’ youths of today operate on various levels of seriousness, ranging from broke-ass party scene to exciting 80’s metal/hard rock LARP fests, the future trenches of rock history are yet filled with ambitious types: Those who reach for the yet unbroken ice of moderately popular retro rock, and those who aim for longevity in the ‘underground’ without an obsession beyond basal success. Smoulder, who’ve established as a mature and professional unit at this point, yield a classic epic heavy metal meets high fantasy reality and as a result best represent the lineage of their influences while putting their own touch upon grand traditions. I’d follow these rhythms to Hell and back, of course and that’d been the sentiment for Smoulder‘s debut with reference to Pagan Altar, Manilla Road, Crypt Sermon and Solstice as these are the masters of immortal doom and heavy metal set upon grand emotion and narrative sojourn. The title track here on ‘Dream Quest Ends’ sets the band on a level of a band like Eternal Champion, quite serious in tone and impactful in terms of clear and uninhibited render. Small touches do wonders in bringing prime lucidity to the Smoulder experience, easing up on the reverb applied to vocalist Sarah Kitteringham‘s voice sets her in a station of power that ‘commands the room’ in better harmony with the rest of the bands presence. The diction on display here is the effector, the driver, and almost ends up being the main event as the full listen becomes more familiar. Hell, so few ‘modern’ epic heavy metal bands manage this so early in their discography and I’d found it remarkable the force at which their music approached and held my attention.
“Dream Quest Ends” and “Warrior Witch of Hell” are the strongest argument yet for Smoulder‘s ability to live up to the hype, and a point of defiance to relent to for folks who’d not seen the potential early on. Without bland imitation getting in the way, without studio effects blurring the edges, it becomes even clear that this is a remarkable troupe. This is all wonderful to divulge and analyze, they’ve hit a beautiful stride in their work but what comes unexpected and as a flood upon me is this cover of Manilla Road‘s “Cage of Mirrors”, arguably the most effective of the early ‘ballad’ song type that’d been an enormous highlight on their 1982 album ‘Metal’. Mark Shelton is a bit of a messiah to me as a heavy metal fan and if you’ve never set and absorbed their flawless eight album rise to power from ’80 to ’90, do so. Nostalgia, mourning, and inspiration all pour into my own reaction to this cover but only because Kitteringham‘s performance speaks so mightily the emotion (isolation, regret) of the original piece. I hate to be that guy but, there are so many awful Manilla Road covers out in the wild… It just takes the right kind of insight and expressive range to pull off the irreplaceable presence of mind the Shark brought. This version of “Cage of Mirrors” actually brought me to tears and still provides a swell in the throat each time it plays, it is exactly -that- savagely performed. Or, I am the exact right person for it to hit, either way it is a gift and a treasured, unforgettable moment from a somewhat unexpected place. My hand smeared with snot and tears of mourning for a world of new deaths, widespread agony, and ever-distant joy I can happily give a high recommendation for this fine EP, specifically the vinyl version if you’re so inclined.
High recommendation. 4.0/5.0
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