To see the lineage of the human animal through the blur of incomprehensible generations, spanning hundreds and thousands (forget millions…) of years, as anything more or less fantastic than any other organism is mystic, dated doctrine of the self-obsessed. Upon reading Richard Dawkins’ River Out of Eden (1995) as a teenager I’d never understood Eden itself well enough to figure the obviate analogy intended, imagining an alphabet soup of DNA sequences spilling from a Christian fabled font of life’s creation and merely enjoying the perspective of the mind’s illustration. There in the midst of periodicals detailing the exciting progress of the human genome project and reflecting upon Dawkin’s central theme, admittedly within his easiest to grasp and summary-heavy book to date, I’d bought into the idea that the origin of the species was far less exciting than where it might be headed in due time. As it turns out the river ahead was one and the same, almost Heraclitian in the core lesson learned, in realization of the impermanence of adaptation within a species no longer fighting to survive, arguably peaking as genetic science boiled down humanity to archaic replicators. Of course I stopped wondering about Eden itself, if we are to be the drying stew of failure nearby the end of times then what of the source? Should it matter as the human habitat collapses around us? On their tenth year and fourth full-length album Thessaloniki, Greece-based progressive extreme metal band Hail Spirit Noir craft their own vision of Eden, the prime primordial earthen origins of foul mankind from the Darwinian perspective whilst inserting their own surrealistic prosaic selves into that core exploration. Beyond this fascinating lyrical theme, which is often late-game window dressing for even the most serious musicians, ‘Eden in Reverse’ explores deeper surrealistic art and science fiction influence in realizing their seemingly subconscious shift towards late 70’s and 80’s progressive rock influences.
If you are new to Hail Spirit Noir and yet flabbergasted by their moody, high-functioning grasp of auld progressive rock motif, freshly melodic progressive metal gloss and oft intense bursts of black metal influences then it is imperative that you trip back to 2000 with me, for a long-winded paragraph at least. Does Transcending Bizarre? ring a bell? I’ve only heard of them due to trading records with an avant-black metal collector back in the mid-2000’s where ‘The Four Scissors’ (2003) had generated some small buzz among folks looking for examples of ‘progressive’ black metal beyond the crumbling symphonic age. All of of Hail Spirit Noir‘s original line-up were original members of Transcending Bizarre? who’d essentially disbanded after ‘The Misanthrope’s Fable‘ in 2010 as a key collaborator had passed and it’d been time to move towards hiatus. To be clear I am only providing the argument that these folks were well-seasoned musicians after a decade in their first band, not that Hail Spirit Noir was a continuation of their previous project. You’ll find no strong similarities between the cirque du prog-black that is their first album (‘Pneuma‘, 2012) and that past life. In this case the future-self of Hail Spirit Noir and their past selves are all quite interesting and ‘Pneuma’ was a brilliant blend of ’69-’74 progressive rock rhythmic influences from an avant-garde minded black metal band; At the time there were very few bands fans could wish towards the realization of ‘psychedelic black metal’ as a thing so, by the time their second album (‘Oi Magoi‘, 2014) released a few years later. This is widely considered the breakthrough moment and to some, a first modern classic in a line of several from Hail Spirit Noir thus far. I was on board with whatever these guys did starting in 2012 but it was ‘Mayhem in Blue‘ (2016) where I’d become convinced to start grabbing albums, hitting follow buttons and keeping up.
So, what on Earth makes this alien music so notable? Without a couple decades of Opeth‘s grooming melodic death/doom kids into Camel-knowing scholarly adults alongside Oranssi Pazuzu‘s fiery psyche-shattering melange carving new possibilities for black metal beyond Ved Buens Ende‘s torsion, I’m not sure anyone would’ve gotten what ‘Pneuma’ was after. Yet the appeal of late 60’s and early 70’s progressive rock is fairly universal for anyone even remotely interested in altered states, extended compositions, dynamic performances and complex musicianship — These are all traits that Hail Spirit Noir have been modulating since the inception of the project before finding their own golden balance of memorable and melodic songwriting, retro-synth adornment, and a ramping shift from rasped vocals to oft harmonized and expressive vocal performances. Where they’ve “nailed it” most recently comes by way of cadence, the diction of pre-anthemic 70’s psychedelic rock, light hints of symphonic prog from Scandinavia and heavy doses of inventive, and distinctly 80’s, synthesizer abuse. When taken in as an accessible, repeatable, and gorgeously rendered whole ‘Eden in Reverse’ is a grand breakthrough beyond ‘Mayhem in Blue’, if not primarily for the sake of its 99% egress from the extreme metal realm, focusing much more intently on modern and polished work that is yet intent on classics-minded progressive/psychedelic rock songwriting; A phenomenon Hail Spirit Noir have referred to as a newly realized “retro-futurism” within their sound could be described as an exuberant, invigorated palette refresh.
“Triumphant”, “psychedelic”, “impassioned”, and “hauntingly catchy” aren’t new descriptors handed to the Hail Spirit Noir experience yet the aforementioned introduction of 80’s synth driven pieces means extra-kosmiche layers flood out of every possible pore as ‘Eden in Reverse’ spins. The emulated handpan hits that open “Darwinian Beasts” surely had me fearing we were getting “Popcorn” black metal but by the time the ominous tension of “Incense Swirls” kicks in it is clear that this is going to be a progressive metal record and not because of any empowered keyboard but the distinct harmonization between Cons Marg (who makes his on-album debut with the band here) and guitarist/vocalist Theoharis. My most immediate association with their interplay was a bit of earlier Leprous and certainly Borknagar if they were perhaps tuned to the moons of Saturn rather than the shores of Valhalla. As it turns out the breathy, sinus-shaking duets on standout single “Crossroads” features Lars Nedland (Solefald, Borknagar) perhaps compounding the (formerly) black metal unto progressive metal transition. Nedland is so expressive on this piece that he probably grabs the biggest “moment” but frankly the composition and thematic apex offer some considerable enlightenment. At seven songs and roughly 43 minutes Hail Spirit Noir have accomplished an hour and a half long double LP’s worth of impact in half the time, sparing no embellishment yet never reaching the point of inappropriately gaudy excess or interrupting the remarkable, jazz-like flow of the full listen. It may be a bit disappointing to pull the sextet out of the ‘psychedelic black metal’ race and set them within the much more crowded progressive metal realm yet ‘Eden in Reverse’ is such a finely crafted full listen it’d quickly stop mattering exactly what team the categorical mind would shove them onto.
The unnerving theremin on “Alien Lip Reading”, the roiling skull-encasing synth spirals of “The Devil’s Blind Spot”, and the strong rhythmic punch back to ‘Oi Magoi’-esque rhythms on “The First Ape on New Earth” not only speak to the odd narrative progression of ‘Eden in Reverse’ but ramp in tension adjacent to events, crafting what I’d describe as blissful turmoil leading up to the extended finale of “Automata 1980”; This final piece begins as if it were some sort of improvised Klaus Schulze piece meant to convey the dark, colorless expanse of pre-technicolor outer space. It may simply compound the heavy use of synth/keyboard work found within the rest of the experience yet I’d found it profound simply for the respite offered by the extended instrumental build of the song. In selling a narrative focused on recreating the story of man’s ejection from the garden of Eden from an esoteric, atheistic and evolutionary standpoint Hail Spirit Noir haven’t used an incredible amount of technical language but rather prose fitting for an imaginative science fiction piece, pulling in emotive moments as if in the throes of spiritually induced mystification due the splendor of described events. Why shouldn’t a story of creation be expressive? Yet I’m not entirely sold on “Automata 1980” as an endpoint, it is an appropriate finale piece of grand design but it doesn’t land with anywhere near the conviction of “Crossroads” closure of Side A. This meant I’d been much more eager to repeat that first half of the listen despite loving “The First Ape on New Earth”.
Considered for its long-term appeal and analyzed to death after far, far too many listens this is the sort of record I eventually resign to loving not for its details but for its undeniable, wholly enjoyable full listen. No tone or phrase is overused, the dynamic stirs and blusters conjure some unexpected forces but the mood of the album is satisfactory for its existential affect and brightly displayed synth work, deeply influenced by classic science fiction soundtracks. This Beyond the Black Rainbow-esque (alternately, Altered States) somber Kubrickian cosmic horror vibe paired with brutalist cover art from CG artist StuZor and some incredible harmonized vocal work, eternally unraveling rhythmic work, and a fairly succinct full listen makes ‘Eden in Reverse’ one of the most compelling, worthwhile investments to be made in the prog-metal/rock realm thus far this year. No doubt I’d have loved if the black metal side of the band were still at least somewhat prominent outside of some smaller rhythmic references but the trade-off is absolutely worth it as Hail Spirit Noir evolve beyond self-reference, conquering a new dimension with striking capability. A very high recommendation.
Very high recommendation. 4.25/5.0
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