SECOND TO SUN – Leviathan (2020)REVIEW

What exactly St. Petersburg, Russia-based extreme metal quartet Second to Sun intends to be is either intentionally amorphous or dictated by emotional choices and ever-developing taste in heavy music. The result is a discography that could appear indecisive or adventurous and this generally stems from inconsistent formative design in terms of musical style and aesthetic. The impetus for Second to Sun‘s formation seems to have been shared between members of industrial and groove metal influenced act Epoch Crysis who’d created their second album (‘Gal agnostiske drømmer‘, 2011) album intending it to be a new side-project named Utenomjordisk Hull. It was a completely freakish thing to do as it featured a made up conglomerated North Germanic language that spun a tale of bizarre nonsense. I believe it’d take some time for the band to catch onto what was inherently interesting about this record but they did eventually realize that the world building and explanation of their themes was a major point of interest even though most all of their releases were instrumental until they began releasing versions with vocals added around 2017. The naïve and youth apropos need to explain thyself and be understood did some great work in appealing to folks who are drawn to conceptual extreme music that builds an imaginative narrative. Though the musical goals of the band tend to fall within the realm of melodic black metal influenced dark metal Second to Sun have done their best to steer things fully in the black metal direction these last few years. I am not sure ‘Leviathan’ matches up with the true ideals of second wave black metal but instead offers some elements of modern rock, groove metal, and post-black metal with some strong flourishes provided by the popular spectrum of late 90’s black metal.

Where does the earlier suggestion of “amorphous” and “inconsistent” work come from, then? We’ll have to go back to the beginning a bit and pick our way forward. Before elements of post-black metal began to work their way into Second To Sun‘s oeuvre they took a heavy dip into the realm of djent with the (later disowned) ‘Based on a True Story‘ (2013) album and several adjunct EP and single releases in that style. This just hadn’t worked out for them, the drummer from Epoch Crysis had left and a new fellow was recruited. At that point that they’d title their (technically third) next album ‘The First Chapter‘ (2015) to signify a new beginning and they’d presage this change with a cover of Emperor‘s ‘Ye Entrancemperium”. You can certainly hear guitarist, bassist, and founding member Vladimir Lehtinen‘s admiration of Ihsahn‘s guitar work push forward as some mutual interest in exploring black metal textures became a shared goal with drummer Theodor Borovski. Clearly the band wanted a fresh start yet the choice to pull previous albums from canonical inclusion is a bit of a disservice to folks who might’ve found value in them as well as dismissing formative development as irrelevant, which it never is. An instrumental band or, one without vocals, typically exists for the sake of stylistic flexibility or pronounced technique but critics and listeners (myself included) would have trouble finding a point of view within bits of 2000’s alt-metal rhythms, post-black crescendos, folkish breaks, and dark metal synth that’d become more prominent until things began to level out in 2017 when a vocalist was added and all further releases included vocal and non-vocal versions. They’d even gone as far as adding vocals to most all past albums.

The choice was made to craft revisionist history, to mend past criticisms and appease the distortion of intent and although I do not respect this approach it did absolutely improve their back catalog and make further releases easier to appreciate. Speaking of revisionist history, the smooth-brained music critics who equate symphonic black metal of the mid-to-late 90’s with the second wave have completely distorted the expectations when approaching Second to Sun. The influence from popular black metal and dark metal is no crime at all yet ‘Leviathan’ and the three albums that precede it have a very light handed approach when it comes to actual black metal elements. I don’t mean that in a malign sense but that the modern post-metal and glossy groove soundscape created is yet only aesthetically related to second wave black metal. A more appropriate place to begin angling towards the reality of ‘Leviathan’ might be a band like Khors who bring those same core 90’s black metal influences into a modern non-specific ‘extreme metal’ mold for better or worse and the result is something broadly accessible yet perhaps more rooted in today’s modern metal Venn diagram than any core influences one could pull from two decades ago. So, I think I’ve overwrought the sentiment here but hey unless you’re happy completely misunderstanding what second wave black metal is… it is a bad place to start in description of Second to Sun. Hell, there is more Wolves in the Throne Room and even melodic metalcore pomp here than anything remotely Emperor as far as I’ve heard, excepting some very Ihsahn appropriate harmonics in two pieces. “The Emperor in Hell” is the perfect example of this where stadium rock refrains and that punchy return ~3:57 minutes in the song is certainly not a throwback moment yet it is a defining and memorable part of the album.

Reframed in view of current modern metal trends throughout eastern Slavic realms, much of what Second to Sun are doing bears more ‘grit’ and earnest personal insight than many peers. Careful attention to throwback atmospherics, bouts of aggressive and groovy riffing, and plenty of detailed backstory for each piece helps build the case for ‘Leviathan’ as its own thing, a third iteration of a great idea that improves in character and impact beyond its predecessors. Second to Sun haven’t grown less accessible or more ‘niche’ interest over the years, they’ve simply improved skill enough to express ideas more clearly as a unit and found a sound that is best representative of intent. That doesn’t yet impress me as a fan of black metal, melodic black metal, and atmospheric black metal who doesn’t mind some post-metal modernism and any measure of wild ideas, though. The payoff for long strands of development doesn’t quite come on slow burners like “Marsch der Wölfe”. Chuggy blackened groove metal numbers like “Shaitan” are energetic but propped up by supremely bland chunk-by-numbers riffing. Beyond that point “The Engraving of Gustave Doré” and “Black Death, Spirits, and Werewolves” are unnecessary filler that drag the album to the 50+ minute mark. The tracks with some real impact tend to be quite long such as “Leviathan”, and opener “Eerie” and this is primarily where the album will impress along with the aforementioned “The Emperor in Hell”. The full listen is evenly distributed between mediocre pieces that float by and high-impact numbers that really make the case for this modern melodic black metal feeling release.

Excess is not necessary when the core ideas are already strong enough and I know most won’t agree with me on this but look at the original single version of “Leviathan” released this June as “L” and compare its simple back-and-forth swaying four minute push of atmospheric tension to the full-bodied eight minute realization on the album. The final version of “Leviathan” is surely a structural accomplishment and one of the more impressive pieces on the album yet were it cut back down to its central idea along with the rest of ‘Leviathan’ the impact might’ve been more economical, heavier and without that overworked symphonic/melodic commercial metal feeling. A personal preference on my part, of course, and with a grain of salt… I mean, I own every Thyrfing album. The point isn’t at all whether or not I like the album, it is “just alright” for my taste; I’d rather focus on the idea that Second to Sun are not only getting better at what they do but that this album is their most impressive work to date. The idiosyncratic and bold artiste within, which we know is there, has never been this close to a breakthrough into something uniquely Second to Sun. They’re right on the verge of extra-dimensionality and that will likely be the exact right sweet spot for a certain sort of modern blackened extreme metal listener. A moderate recommendation.

Moderate recommendation.

Rating: 6.5 out of 10.
RELEASE DATE:September 29th, 2020
BUY & LISTEN:Bandcamp [All Formats]
GENRE(S):Post-Black Metal

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