Label: Ark Noise
Bandcamp stream: Link
Hailing from Leeds in the UK, the latest album from Sunwølf contains the kind of music that feels as if it should not be tied down to any specific geographical place. Combining elements of ambient, stoner/doom, and drone, their latest double album, Beholden To Nothing And No One, is the kind of record that is perfect for taking you away from wherever you happen to be, transporting your mind to somewhere secluded and alone. Whether this is a positive experience or not depends on your frame of mind, but even at its darkest, there is something hugely cathartic and cleansing about this album.
Rather than use the double album format as a vehicle for self-indulgence, what Sunwølf have done is to showcase different aspects of their sound on different discs. The first disc demonstrates the heavier, more nihilistic side of the band, and even if opening track “In The Darkened River I Found The Silence Loom” may not seem heavy in a traditional “bands with guitars” sense, it does possess an immense weight to it, a feeling of creeping darkness that is enveloping the world. That the band have toured alongside Chelsea Wolfe makes total sense, as this track carries a comparable sense of beautiful darkness with it. The use of piano, gentle guitars, and female vocals creates a sense of tension and heaviness that thousands of bands with amps turned up to 11 fail to do so. Second track, the instrumental “The Widows Oil”, keeps things dark and ominous, comparable to Neurosis at their most spacious and foreboding.
It’s only with third track “Vultures Crown” that things get heavy in a traditional sense, as an absolutely crushing guitar tone ushers in some slow and wonderfully heavy doom over the following tracks. Again, later-day Neurosis is the most obvious point of comparison, but the band have that intangible something that rises them above a sea of imitators and gives them their own character, even if it’s difficult to pin down exactly what that something is. The tempo rarely rises above plodding (though when it does speed up, as on the mid-section of “Thrown Into A Nameless Time”, it’s absolutely thrilling) but like all the best doom, the songs never drag, the sheer power of them keeping things moving forward. Instrumental “Totem” features a crushing opening and some wonderfully restrained use of melody, but the title track is arguably the pick of the bunch. Taking its time to build up, when the song really kicks in after a sample, it is hair-raisingly effective. Finally, closer “Heathens Rest” can be seen as a summation of the disc, with a vast sense of space and downbeat female vocals, but also a feeling of immense heaviness, with what sounds like some tasteful saxophone buried in the mix aiding this. It is a fitting end to the disc, and very haunting in an all too human way.
The second disc demonstrates the more ambient, almost avant garde side of Sunwølf. That is not to say that this is Music For Airports; rather, it is ambient music of a darker, more haunting, almost sinister kind. The song titles should make that clear even before a single note is heard (“Symptoms Of Death”; “Of Darknesse”; “Come O Spirit, Dwell Among Us”). There is almost a drone feeling at points, with the opening tracks featuring prominent bass tones, echoing synths, and samples designed to disquiet the listener, as well as a few flourishes reminiscent of early industrial music. Even when “Ithaca” introduces some clean guitar and trumpet, it still does little to combat the growing unease, though “Symptoms Of Death” is almost cleansing by comparison, bringing to mind both the recent records of Earth and the ending of Sunn O)))’s Alice. The chanting of “Lotus Island” dispels any feeling of light that may have arisen however, and is wonderfully ritualistic with its repetition, with each subtle change having a big impact. It falls to piano-led closer “Of Darknesse” to attempt to restore some hope, but despite the gentle nature of the music, in the context it is presented it only adds to the sense of darkness and isolation that has been created.
It should go without saying that this is an album best experienced as just that, played from start to finish, with each song appreciated in its proper context and place. Likewise, it does require a certain frame of mind to be best appreciated – it is an album that is greatly enhanced by giving it your full concentration, and is certainly best appreciated at night and when alone – but it also does a good job of putting you in the right state to respond to it, pulling you in with its dark charms. To say that it is impressive is an understatement; it is rare to encounter an album or band with such ambition, and to see it executed so well is an utter joy. Their earlier records were full of promise, but this release has more than delivered on what was previously hinted at. Sunwølf have created something very special in Beholden To Nothing And No One, and it deserves to be heard.