NOCTAMBULIST – The Barren Form (2021)REVIEW

[Of Melancholy] It often happens to these persons to have absurd Desires, Hopes and Fears; and yet, at the same time, to know them to be absurd; and, in consequence thereof to resist them. […] When they endeavor to gratify very absurd Desires, or are permanently persuaded of the Reality of their groundless Hopes and Fears we may reckon the Distemper of Melancholy to have passed into Madness,” David Hartley, Observations on Man

Presenting the raw innervation of the mind in distress through elaborate images of corporeal destruction is an art almost exclusively championed by the introvert, the inner chasm dweller who’d brave sorting the refraction of their ‘self’ through the horror-prism of every day life without a lifeline or system of checks and balances. The individual becomes alien and almost cartoonish in their malleable, deconstructed and devastated physicality in relation to what the senses gather: The sun and the sky are destruction and salvation per a likely ‘western’ upbringing, torpor and sluggishness are the penultimate symptoms of existential torture when speed is success in society, and death remains the fixation of those suffering as a fear and a desired rest. The mind is both gloaming palatial haunt and a tower of imprisonment in this state of melancholia and anxietous, purposeless dread as its conveyance through music typically demands an extreme potency of some sort — In the case of Denver, Colorado-based blackened technical death metal quartet Noctambulist the intellectual and the affected are cognizant of one another, eventually merging to scourge the self on their second full-length album ‘The Barren Form‘ as self-actualization yields no sunny, shimmering result. This second stage of their advance retains their dissonant, tragically phrased, and brutal modus but creates an psychological dead zone, a superior brand of bleakest absurdist restlessness than before.

As I delve into this band’s brief discography thus far, and each members body of work for additional context, there are two basal statements that can be made to introduce Noctambulist to a broader audience. First, they’ve all gathered their past experience in the visible spectrum of death metal via ‘underground’ brutal death metal with some black metal and grind-adjacent projects in the periphery within the last decade. None of this is particularly relevant to their sound today although fans of Skinned and Cordyceps should recognize drummer Michael Nolan as an impressive force. Second, this band formed with the purpose of doing something entirely different and ‘serious’ in an artistic sense maintaining their brutal sensibilities while leaning towards the aesthetics of bands like Ulcerate and Suffering Hour for their earlier material. Their introduction to the public was “The Soil Tears Ligament From Bone to Cleanse the Earth” a single released digitally in 2017 that showcased what I’d considered a sort of Kronos-esque brutal death sound with the wandering atmospheric death edge of ‘Everything is Fire’. Their debut full-length album (‘Atmospheres of Desolation‘, 2019) intensified this storm with all extremes amplified, a huge drum sound and strong death metal vocals. An oddball album to find on Blood Harvest at first glance but as I’d writ back in 2019, Noctambulistdeliver on the promise of their stylistic sub-genre mixture with an insistent, blasting and moderately challenging debut” er, that is to say that blackened brutal death and atmospheric death metal were purposefully blended. Though the album has grown on me since I understand the band couldn’t continue with that exact sound because every review I’d come across after the fact mentioned Ulcerate to no end, it was time to differentiate and well, ‘The Barren Form’ does so with some considerable style and a more directly personal lyrical approach.

“[…] The intent of the album is to unsettle and consume the listener.” and if we consider this an intention that was in place before pre-production the sound recording itself can be considered a great facilitator for this effect via the same fellow (Ben Romsdahl at Juggernaut Audio) who had a hand in recent records from various Colorado institutions: Primitive Man, Of Feather and Bone, and Oryx all of which have been stunningly rendered and engrossing albums. I mention this up front because it changes the entire dynamic of Noctambulist‘s sound to be bent the way it is, the drums offer a more basal layer of support, the guitars sprawl to deeper-panned extremes, and as a the dynamic of all cylinders begins firing it hits the listener as the potently aggressing smoke of a smoldering wreck rather than blunted mayhemic suffocation. “Infinitesimal” and its nearly twelve minute self-exorcism shows the virtue of this fuller-bodied recording as the piece shifts from its oceanic yet technical death metal statement towards a three minute ambient outro, from the hammer of their deepest hit moment to a zone of pure surrealism the atmospheric value of the piece remains consistently flowing with its crushing purpose. Not all of the album is as meditative but we do get a fair number of meditative breaks in between the assault of their still brutal craft along the way. Debut single and opener “Depletion” showcases the additional range that vocalist Sean McConnell (Berated) brings to this record beyond the fair straight forward roar of the previous, now leaning into some of his black metal register for rasped touches which are more indicative of a modern USBM style to my ears; This song also functions to introduce the record with a bang, or, a dissonant and shattering set of riffs meant to convey not only mental disarray but a sliver of the self-loathing thread that runs through ‘The Barren Form’ which should be read as a feeling of emptiness, unfulfilling and uncomfortably arrived-upon absurdist thought. The sensation of the album’s greeting is almost to exciting to immediately “get” the tone of the lyrics but Noctambulist do eventually make their ‘point’ and tone clear within its ~44 minute run.

The second single and third piece, “Engulfed” uses the profound shock of having all of the cards on the table to work in what I consider some of the most impressive guitar work on the album via pried loose Pyrrhon-esque scrawls and ringing progressions which speak to their own signature headspace within this realm of technical, occasionally frantic dissonance without losing the terrifyingly low mood of this record. The fragmented sentences that frame this piece arrive as a sort of descending ladder of steps that indicate dissolving mind and body in alternating steps, the psyche throbbing with a swollen sort of pain. Structure is key for this piece and when parsed into sections there is some “traditional” technical death metal placement here which ensures the memorable movements do repeat at least 2-3 times but not in an entirely regular order, we are certainly not reliving the bluntness of the early 2000’s but a callback to the main guitar hook feels like a clever glance back as the song ends. Here “Engulfed” connects purposefully with “Contrivance” as if the intro to the latter begins just as the former ends. The fluidity of this exit, or this moment of intentionally interlaced song placement forces the listener to stay attuned and though I found “Contrivance” to be the least interesting song on the album the perpetuated listen helps to keep the anxietous momentum of the full listen going. At this point you’re either immersed or uninterested so, this piece will depend on how invested you’ve become.

Closer “Dissolution” is the perfect way to end an album of this style wherein the listener is exhausted, sympathetic, or in my case anticipating a final impressive statement. “Infinitesimal” + “Engulfed” is the sort of nuclear event here that will pull the casual ear in for a deeper inquest but for my taste it was the way that “Dissolution” ended the album’s final point of dark, irredeemable closure with an ellipse that kept me coming back for several deeper listens… This is the great collapse, the toppling architecture of the mind which references the tremors of dissociation we’d shocked out of on “Depletion” and presents the self as responsible for its own miserable demise. They’ve also guided us back to the start of the album with ambiance that eases into the intro track, it isn’t perfectly set in loop but if affected by the record the mind should reach a point of dismay that sees the continuity of cyclic anxietous distemper within the full listen’s repetition. I’d personally found the running order brilliantly presented with plenty of muscle and rapturous brutality to entertain folks who aren’t prone to vibe with a mood-crushing thematic. In this sense we are dealing with a fully modern recording, no nostalgic void in sight, though perhaps not yet an entirely “original” death metal statement either. Noctambulist gently breaches some of the more accessible fidelity of the more popular “all-the-genres” swiss-army extreme metal bands we find on today’s best-seller lists without going “-core” to the point of alienating folks who’d venture into dissonant black metal or Ulcerate-esque post-metallic accoutrement; The larger statement of ‘The Barren Form’ and the performances within are rooted in organic sources though the album sounds enormous and bleak and this ends up a satisfying alteration of expectations I’d had for this band after ‘Atmospheres of Desolation’ had been somewhat average on a conceptual level. I’ve connected with this album without any interest in doing so to start and as such, I am beyond impressed with its potential to bore deeper into my thoughts in the future. A high recommendation.

High recommendation. (85/100)

Rating: 8.5 out of 10.
TITLE:The Barren Form
LABEL(S):Willowtip Records
RELEASE DATE:July 2nd, 2021
BUY & LISTEN:Bandcamp
GENRE(S):Blackened Technical Death Metal

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