NIGHTBEARER – Ghosts of a Darkness to Come (2022)REVIEW

Wandering along an empty road and unable to escape the pinging anticipation which grates at your nerve beneath the oppressive din of an armed and approaching horde, you begin darting deeper into the shadows with every imagined possibility of retreat. No certain warrior even without any true witnesses to your cowering, this slow fading of resolve finds your greying already in process of bowing, bending your will to the dark one. Weakened by the growling, chaotic shrill of lurching daemonic forces and weary of your own call to arms is the exact state, or, the right mental point of entry for enjoying this second full-length from west Germany-based death metal quintet Nightbearer, who’ve infused the grand traditions of their craft with their own brilliant high-fantasy fingerprint for a second time around. ‘Ghosts of a Darkness to Come‘ offers a uniquely charged pathway for the well-typified crunch of Swedish death metal tonality, leaning into the group’s web-like weave of strongly varietal and oft melodic work for an exhaustive colonnade of sword and sorcerer adept heaviness.

Nightbearer formed in 2017 by the many arms of musician Dominik Hellmuth, who’d featured in various death metal projects since the early-to-mid 2000’s, in an effort to spark up a Swedish death metal influenced side-project with vocalist Michael Torka. These fellowes were clearly fans of the many permutations of Dismember‘s root achievements via the always boosted German ideation of it and while this’d ensured thier take was solid, at least above average on their first EP (‘Stories From Beyond‘, 2018). Even from the get-go you could accuse the band of leaning into the groove-heavy post-‘Massive Killing Capacity‘ era sound of Svensk buzzsaw rock quite heavily but you couldn’t say they’d been pandering to the lowest common denominator when it came to arranging songs, stacking ’em high with substantial riffcraft even in their tentative studio-only stage. Likely to their surprise that CD sold well and attracted enough attention that putting together a full-length and a proper touring apparatus made sense, landing ’em on Hamburg-based cult death metal label Testimony with the still brilliant sluice of ‘Tales of Sorcery and Death‘ (2019) making an incredible first impression during the too-busy month of December that year. Since I didn’t set aside enough time to put together more than a short review of it, I’ll at least suggest that it has held up for a variety of reasons which’ve only amplified in the meantime as their gig expands into quintet and an second LP arrives.

The hottest take I could manage on the previous album was that Nightbearer were doing interesting (as in, good) things with Boss HM-2 gilded extremity in hand, a rare feat of applying considerable effort into the flow and movement of pieces with involved, elaborate ladders of riff that’d read as labyrinthine constructs upon repeat listening. It’d been more than the stupid bludgeon of a distortion pedal cranked to eleven and, well, that is more than most bands in this style ever managed beyond early Bloodbath and the odd Revel in Flesh record. But if we can look beyond the meatiness of the guitars still grinding away in hindsight one of the more overlooked and potentially interesting aspects of the band’s work is the strong influence their lyrics and imagery take from popular fantasy fiction, with clear nods to Game of Thrones (“All Men Must Die”) the Lord of the Rings/Silmarillion (“Vile Flame of Udun”) and Stephen King’s Dark Tower series which might not be particularly deep cuts for nerds but the subject certainly fits their oft melodic and ‘determined’ strikes at Swedish style death metal. The major point I’d make in this regard is that I never felt like the riffs or the lyrics pander to the brutal stupidity of “fun” death metal, this band hasn’t dumbed anything down on purpose to date and I appreciate that.

On ‘Ghosts of a Darkness to Come‘ they appear to have honed in on one lyrical subject, which I personally hope they will continue to expand upon, in detailing the austere thrills and metaphysical coursing of The Wheel of Time series of novels from the late Robert Jordan. Perhaps they just watch a lot of proper television or read popular fantasy fiction books, either way I find this focus a strong enough point of engagement when reading through their lyrics and it ties in very well with their consistent choice of Juanjo Castellano for colorful, imaginative cover artwork. The applications of brutal Swedish death metal guitar tones, a bit of book-wormin’ high fantasy power metal ambition and a love of melodic death metal all wrap things together neatly for Nightbringer as they press forward yet the core drive of the band is their addiction to the bounding groove of the classic death metal sound that threatened to anchors them in place on that first record. I suppose the first meaningful takeaway from this second full-length is that they’ve refined the greater variety of stylistic nods available to the keen listener while amping up the modern, theatrically charged Swedish death metal fealty that’d been the impetus for their sound to start. As we find groups like Paganizer and Entrails safely chipping away at whatever sticks within their wheelhouse it has been brutally refreshing to bask in the green-and-grey glow of this comparatively thoughtful, adventurous record manifesting a shade apart.

Leaning into extravagant longform melodic death metal epics has always been the lost spectre, the unachievable peak of where the Stockholm and Gothenburg associated death metal traditions of the early-to-mid 90’s should’ve sewn together without the interruptions of death n’ roll/groove metal chunking about. We find hints of this in classic Edge of Sanity, various Fleshcrawl records, Horrid‘s ‘Reborn in Sin‘ and more recently in the exciting progression of Westerwald-based underrated crew Obscure Infinity and though I don’t think they intend to lean full-hog into this sound we do get a bit of this in the best moments which Nightbearer present on ‘Ghosts of a Darkness to Come‘. When they do lean into their gift for melodic death metal turbulence, as we find early on the record with opener “Wolves by my Side”, this doesn’t necessarily stray beyond the obvious “heavy metal” swells into melodic leads and bounding riffs we find in Dismember‘s lesser fawned over post-1995 material (as in the previously mentioned works) yet this still ends up landing as an exciting step back into Nightbearer‘s world where they’ve convinced right off the bat that they’ve built this thing beyond the status quo. The catch is that they’re in no hurry to cut right through to this, or any one particular focus, spreading the loft of various ideals throughout a 50+ minute full-length which admittedly becomes a bit of sonic overload even for a ridiculous death metal idiot like me.

There are yet several standout moments which stud the experience with thrill-a-minute death metal entertainment as we ride the lead-driven and appreciably melodic swells of “The Dragon Reborn” and the chunking hard bulldozer grooves of standout “Forever in Darkness” beyond the kick into gear the opener provides yet the bigger takeaway with Nightbearer‘s discography is that they’re all in on this one, likely putting other projects on hold to ensure all their energy has gone into making more than an imitation of a classic sound, or, sounds. I’m not sure that they’ve gone so far as to push the very limits of expectation with these fairly traditional, very finely crafted opening numbers but it does start to feel like they’d meant to get the easily read, normal stuff out of the way before hitting upon the goods. In this sense first impressions from fans of ‘Tales of Sorcery and Death‘ will great appreciate the familiar verve of this follow-up to start. The all-in, boundary testing stuff starts to happen mid-album with songs like “Blood and Bloody Ashes”, a fairly typical burner at first glance which grants itself a melodeath riff progression as it blooms into various forms between roughly the ~1:30 ’til 2:30 minute marks. It is the sort of minute one might take for granted on an initial cursory listen or two yet appreciate more as it sneaks up as an interesting wheeling of many forces upon achieving a more immersed state. The piece amounts to little more than an uplifting melodic blurb in the greater fray of things yet it marks Nightbearer‘s general uptick in experimental and variously involved ideas applied to their sound.

The most pronounced experimental motion applied here is the out of character salvo which kicks off Side B stunner “Where No Wind Ever Blows”, as they whip out a symphonic black-adjacent burst of medieval Casio-whirled synth, a moment which seemed like it might’ve been a bit of a gimmick to pull you into the song to start but beyond the stomping of the opening verses they begin working toward a brutal, electrifying resurgence of that black metallic scourge of synth-driven intensity. It isn’t the first time I’ve heard these sounds clashing together on a record, some early 90’s melodic black metal albums are pretty wild in their ‘death metal riff plus keyboards’ exploits, but it does end up working very well within Nightbearer‘s expanding favor as the continue to add to this argument that they’ve put work into stepping away from what could’ve been the usual doldrums of Scandinavian chunking guitar craft. Don’t get me wrong, this song is still sandwiched between songs that dedicated fans of Bloodbath and Dismember will absolutely appreciate most but it’d impressed me just how well these folks kept a ~52 minute record (~48 if you’ve gotten the vinyl) wall-to-wall entertaining by the sheer will of dumping so many ideas into their craft. It begins to feel a bit fearless even if we are still hanging out beneath a traditional death metal umbrella while they storm about.

I’ve made this point well enough, in fact I probably said it succinctly enough back in 2019, but Nightbearer aren’t just the usual HM-2 buzzing fillercraft that one might’ve expected them to be beyond their debut back in 2018. ‘Ghosts of a Darkness to Come‘ does everything, and I mean everything, it can to step off of the toes of old giants and give an exciting spin upon a classic sound. From my point of view they’ve succeeded in solidifying the core identity established on their debut while showcasing far more than brutal devotion to other’s legacy sounds, still leaving ample room to expand their artistic voice in plenty of admirable ways. Beyond that there is a groove heavy, melodic and intensity rich ride to take here, one which eclipses a lot of the phoned in Swedish death metal we get year over year in spades. A high recommendation.

High recommendation. (80/100)

Rating: 8 out of 10.
TITLE:Ghosts of a Darkness to Come
LABEL(S):Testimony Records
RELEASE DATE:June 24th, 2022

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