VOUNA – Atropos (2021)REVIEW

You ought to have seen the tall huntress maiden then, as she stood among the trees with the boar’s skin thrown over her left shoulder and reaching down to her feet. She had never looked so much like the queen of the woods.” James Baldwin, The Story of Atalanta

Any amount of meditation upon the eldest of the three Fates, whom is depicted in ancient parable as decisive-but-fair beyond a few moments of surprising cunning, ultimately lands us within the procession of mankind’s funeral march she’d initiated. The hope is that death is a beautiful glowing thing for all folk, a composed and dignified restful farewell, or, some intense blaze of glorious martyrdom for the greater good; The reality is more often a pathetic and screaming heap of regret and terrifying sickness, a withering loneliness that is arguably fit for such a verminous species. Deeply absorbed within the steady-built paganistic climb of Olympia, Washington-based musician Yianna Bekris‘ second full-length recording as Vouna, there hangs a pallbearer’s dutiful thread providing some intended renaissance of dignity in death as we press on together. In the most practical terms, ‘Atropos‘ is a unification of several forms of darkly expressionist cinematic extreme metal built upon bones of funeral doom, atmospheric black metal and graced with the artists unique touch of keyboard-centric craft and very light influence from Greek urban folk music. From an emotional, experiential point of view it offers the unsettling sensation of an accepted but not willful dissolve, movement away from the corporeal hoping but not praying that there is some transcendence beyond.

Best known for her work in Eigenlicht and association with Wolves in the Throne Room via the pacific northwest atmospheric/ambient black metal and neofolk circles nearby, Bekris clearly had a vision in mind for Vouna that was yet too grand to fully realize in 2018. This found the still impressive self-titled debut (‘Vouna‘, 2018) from the project a sort of “halfway there” templating of the bigger picture with enough of its own noisy-yet-intimate post-black/doom metal charm. The important step that this album takes is refocusing towards a style that is more clearly readable as a blend of extreme doom metal and atmospheric black metal which quashes some of the too-frequent comparisons to WITTR. Back in 2018 I’d found myself conflicted on the first album’s somewhat unsteady delivery and hesitance to go a bit more ‘funeral doom’, hitting the implied weight of those pieces. This is the major success of ‘Atropos’, some viable reflection upon melodic death/doom timbre (think more recent Paradise Lost) while showing some light shades of early Evoken in its keyboard work and lowest moods (see: “Vanish”) while also integrating what is more decisively atmospheric black metal guitar work into these far more refined compositions and recordings. Through what was likely much more painstaking and emotionally driven process this album better conveys the mode of mourning and the physical weight of sorrow.

So, what is left to pick through and analyze beyond the strong emotional resonance of ‘Atropos’ mostly involves fawning over its render via Greg Chandler/Priory Recording and Dan Lowndes/Resonance Sound Studio, both of whom are absolute masters of their craft, and a closer look at the use of Greek urban folk music (Rebetiko) which is quite subtle and yet just one small piece of a greater ensemble featuring harp, lap steel guitar, synth and violin accoutrement from several guest musicians. Of the four main 10-15 minute pieces here on the running order the first two are well set to impress up front with “Highest Mountain” presenting the major ‘hook’ of the release with its choruses and ever-ascending progression and “Vanish” being the exemplar showcase for all that is refined and finally fully realized in the Vouna mind palace via sprawling funeral doom twists and perhaps the best possible use of black metal vocals for this sort of format, which I believe come from Nathan Weaver of Wolves in the Throne Room. As we move on to the second half of the experience we venture towards what’d struck me as clearer focus on the atmospheric doom metal spectrum rather than the extreme metal adjacent first half. “Grey Sky” is essentially an ‘epic’ doom metal piece extended to the length of an atmospheric black/funeral doom composition, something more likely to connect with fans of sombre post-metal than any traditional format in mind. This song, along with album closer “What Once Was” showcase Bekris‘ improved vocal work, empyrean/ethereal presentations which are enunciated with purpose beyond extra atmospheric layers in most cases.

“What Once Was” is probably the most memorable piece beyond opener “Highest Mountain” for its atmoblack crescendo-ease and countless change-ups within its duration, another long-form showcase for all that Vouna does that eventually aligns with purpose beyond a few dungeon synth-esque breaks. This is a microcosm of the greater experience, a record that holds fast to is core vibe and yet spends quite a lot of its runtime focused on compositional and instrumental variation. The translation from thought and emotion to performance is impressive in terms of scale and overall impact yet I cannot help but think this great leap is preparation for even greater things or, further iteration of this satisfyingly detached and gloom-ridden work. In this sense ‘Atropos’ does everything a sophomore release should, capturing the personae of the artist previously established at a fresh high point of growth wherein the idea and the execution have been elevated to an even more impressive standard. In fact I’ve not had much luck going back to ‘Vouna’ despite its similar feeling, due to the loud and somewhat primitive comparison it offers to ‘Atropos’ and this is the -most- clear sign of the artists progress in realizing the necessary precision of what plays in their head while dreaming up such enchanting, sorrowful music. My favorite parts were of course the most devastating and funereal moments, but there is something to be said for the uniquely new-agey (but not really) sensation of this “hopeful approach upon death” the full listen leaves me with, not for the sake of some spiritual need for afterlife or transcendence but in admiration for anyone who’d stride unto death with some quiet dignity sustained. A high recommendation.

High recommendation. (78/100)

Rating: 7.5 out of 10.
LABEL(S):Profound Lore Records
RELEASE DATE:July 16th, 2021
BUY & LISTEN:Bandcamp
GENRE(S):Atmospheric Black/Doom Metal

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