SPECTRAL LORE – Ετερόφωτος (2021)REVIEW

A reaction in maturing reflection that’d brace itself against the dimness emitted by solitude, the fifth canonical full-length from Athens, Greece based atmospheric/progressive black metal artist AylossSpectral Lore presents a conversation with the entity’s former self, illustrating the internal struggle of the stoic introvert and what turmoil could be averted via community. ‘Ετερόφωτος‘ (etero-fotos or hetero-light) in this presentation potentially carries a dualistic context; First, it may refer to an individual that finds their illumination within ‘ready radiating others and second, it can suggest a knowing observation of those who exist as a tabula rasa without a point of view, they who must be shaped and influenced by others, for better or worse. In this sense we are not fed a nostalgic strand of old codons to cushion the passage of time but rather a personal dialogue between ambition and wisdom which no longer seeks transcendental warrior status, instead arriving upon some meaning in relation to others, a path beyond the self-obsessed and greed-stricken nature of modern man. Oddly shaped, idiosyncratic in voice, and presented in irregular fluid motion the adventurous signature of the celebrated project has not given up the ghost, yet ‘Ετερόφωτος’ persists with the air of a mind changed.

The formative years of a project that has always been happy to “show their work” quickly becomes a difficult thing to (willingly) reduce, as I feel the process of defining certain habits (and the ever-shifting muse) of Spectral Lore, is no complex mystery to experience one’s self. It will all take some certain number of hours to absorb nonetheless. The concept of miasmic atmospheric black metal with highly experimental, sometimes improvised feeling songcraft and dark ambient qualities was not entirely alien during the “new breed” boons of bedroom black metal experienced throughout the 2000’s. Yet it would be fair to say that this flagship inspiration or, the first public solo project from Ayloss and the resultant first two releases ‘I‘ (2006) and ‘II‘ (2007) were alien themselves with the closest comparisons flying around at the time being Darkspace and maybe a certain tangential configuration of Blut Aus Nord. Although these were interesting releases in their own right they constitute demo quality work from my own point of view, and that isn’t a slight so much as a line drawn between formative work and exceptional work. From there we’d see the artist choosing carefully where to go next, taking several years to focus on a melodic black/death metal project (Divine Element) and I believe he’d performed intermittently with Devathorn for a brief period prior to 2010. The ‘epic’ ambition and spiritual arrogance of the well-received ‘Sentinel‘ (2012) was still perhaps a somewhat amateurish statement within its practical rendering. Well, what I mean is that the programmed drums were rough but the album was yet popular and influential, impressive for a certain sect of atmospheric black metal many where chasing at the time. This was then further compounded when a split album with Mare Cognitum (‘Sol‘, 2013) put each band ‘on the map’ so to speak. All manner of new doors opened for the artist at that point.

What is the gravity of this foundation lain? It becomes important to compartmentalize these three different pillars of Spectral Lore and their differentiated shaping: The numbered releases represent a progression of avant-garde/progressive atmospheric black metal that is largely Ayloss‘ own species but has some precedence in classic black metal artistry. The split album(s) with Mare Cognitum ultimately represent their own side-project in some sense where macrocosmic concept albums celebrate mythos with titanic ‘cosmic’ atmospheric black metal/dark ambient works. And for the sake of ordering the massive amount of detail Ayloss is unveiling today we can fit ‘Ετερόφωτος’ into a loose categorical designation with ‘Sentinel’ even if by the end of its ~80 minute run this album represents its own journey and purpose that merely refracts off of his past. “The Coming of Age” on ‘Sentinel’ is the one song where you’ll most clearly feel some linear evolution, some semblance of that unfinished thread was picked up on the first half of ‘Ετερόφωτος’ via unpredictable and often free-handed guitar work which acts as tangible linkage between past and present. Yet if you have already heard this new record that description is incomplete (and I admit it is a shame to skim past the impressive ‘III‘, 2015) without some acknowledgement of the longform melodic language introduced on ‘Gnosis‘ (2015), an experimental EP which I do not think Spectral Lore had expected to leave any considerable impact at the time. It isn’t such a complex statement as it seems, he has chosen the best elements of two releases and responded to their ideological faults and musical virtues unto a new, exceedingly modern work in ‘Ετερόφωτος’. So, it won’t make sense to focus on this record as a continuation of ‘Sentinel’ as the goal of this record is, again, not regressive or nostalgic but reactionary. For an artist known for experimentation and progressive ethos we can view this as a cumulative wisdom conveyed through showing the embattlement of the process of pushing beyond ‘III’ within a span of at least six years. The world has changed, the artist has changed and the music represents a newly bundled sentience unraveling its story through a tumultuous narrative. We can extrapolate more than the development of the individual from this, and apply this greater dialogue to represent the wounds between taciturn generations. Though at this point, if you’re anything like me, you’re wondering if there are any riffs on this thing.

Well, yes. “Ατραπός” (“Pathway” or “Trail”) starts with an attack right out of the gate, a raw launch through a terrifyingly dark corridor that lasts a few minutes before expertly leading into the middle third of the piece where the classic heavy metal interpretations of “oriental” or arabesque melodies found on most of ‘Gnosis’ are elaborated and sophisticated within the space of roughly three minutes. The final third of the nearly thirteen minute opener is perhaps meant to shock and impress beyond its narrative purpose after the song comes to a dead stop, pulsing back in slowly with a sort of Anatolian rock movement with vocoder-trailing vocals and synth rising slowly in the mix. In some sense the classic progressive rock fan will appreciate this transition outright but to the average listener it might reads a bit like a moment from a modern Tool-influenced prog metal album, memorable but, an oddly subtle interruption to return to on repeat listens. “The Golden Armor’ is equally immediate in its introduction presenting a spirited kick that lasts about two minutes before the second act leans into a post-black metal sort of movement driven by a bassline that leads right back into this sort of melodic black metal core of the song. If anything this had surprised me for the sake of how straight forward the song initially appeared to be ’til its discordant collapses became increasingly affected as the third and fourth refrains appeared. Around the third and most extended break ~3:56 minutes in we find the larger motif condensed and soon evolved, revealing a sort of psychedelic black metal statement built up towards. If we cut down each moment to the most structural bones the songcraft isn’t repetitive so much as the dynamic reveal of each song where we are served half-stated allure to pull the ear into each piece and then assured that when immersed in these pieces they’ve all managed to feature some peak or moment of revelation that is both memorable and occasionally thrilling to follow as it develops. As casual listen these first several pieces appeared chaotic, packed with too many ideas and erratic movements that were only marginally beautiful when intended. As concerted listening, eyed and ear’d with some purpose the mélange orders into arrangements that provide simple tonal statements using a very detailed melodic language. Were it 1999 songs like “Initiation to the Mystery” or the title track might’ve been received as some manner of Aeternus-esque pagan black metal adventure and I’d only wished they were as adorned with transformative movements, as “Ατραπός” was to start, this feels like a missed opportunity to truly redefine Spectral Lore‘s reinvigorated parameters.

For my own taste the full listen has sated my curiosity as soon as the impressive centerpiece “The Sorcerer Above the Clouds” has finished playing. This is another piece the listener could liken to the shapes emphasized by ‘Gnosis’ and maybe even including some of the feeling of traditional Greek black metal within certain pockets of lead driven “epic” guitar work. The song takes a bit of a dip into Tartarus when it hits the ~7 minute mark and this almost frustratingly continues this mode where the third act of each song features a twist and a triumphant reprise. As we approach the title track with anticipation it really does reveal itself as the natural endpoint for the full listen, of course without consideration for lyrics and theme, and this renders “Apocalypse” and the 19+ minute dark ambient piece “Terean” superfluous from my perspective. On one hand, sure I absolutely respect Ayloss vision and the conflict inherent to the pieces and their arrangements being long-form thoughts, these pieces do fit together with purpose yet, I couldn’t resolve to sit through the whole of Side D more than once. Of course I won’t fault the album for my own impatient man-child reactions to droning dark ambient soundscapes. The otherwise full hour of material here is impressive for its sense of movement and slow reveal of catchy and inspired melodic leads. It is a puzzle one does not have to “solve” to appreciate, much like the beautifully consistent worlds created by cover artist Alessandro Sicioldr, inspired by the Flemish Primitives or early Netherlandish artists and inserting his own spiritual-yet-surrealistic point of view beyond the late gothic religioso that’d otherwise imply. The pairing might seem odd and eye-catching to start but it makes sense when the entirety of ‘Ετερόφωτος’ eventually sinks in as a singular experience.

Is this fifth and quite long awaited album Ayloss‘ true masterpiece under the Spectral Lore name? Well, I mean, from my perspective that’d already been ‘III’, a very difficult achievement to follow. Ah, and well, even if we are being stingy counting the ‘Wanderers: Astrology of the Nine‘ collaboration is equally necessary, that’d be his second major masterpiece. At this point I would rather see this particular release as the one to move forward with via a newly self-defined purpose that releases the expectation of past work and attempts to outclass youthful ambition with wisened skill, still unpredictable and inventive but more personal in presentation and theme. I could angle as the implications of meaning here even more precariously but instead I’ll imply that ‘Ετερόφωτος’ is a well made, challenging progressive/atmospheric black metal record that takes the best points of experimentation from 2012 and 2015 and reshapes them into something readable (but never too normal) as present day Spectral Lore. Quite a bit of work to get there and with a few bulges of filler for my taste but, a fine result. A high recommendation.

High recommendation. (80/100)

Rating: 8 out of 10.
LABEL(S):I, Voidhanger Records
RELEASE DATE:April 23rd, 2021
BUY & LISTEN:Bandcamp [All Formats]
GENRE(S):Atmospheric Black Metal,
Progressive Black Metal

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