I’m sure every blogger and writer approaches their reviews differently, but here’s the case for me: about half the time, I won’t even look at an album’s artwork until a few spins have gone by. We all know that presentation influences our perceptions of a record, and so getting the opportunity to listen to something without seeing the artwork can be a boon, helping ensure that judgments made on the music are based on the music itself, not the packaging.
Yet, there’s no denying the importance of artwork to a record, and it’s because of this that Second Son have been gathering some unwelcome attention recently in the underground metal press. Rather than some monochrome Transilvanian Hunger knock-off, or lurid depiction of Satan or the horrors of humanity, Sacred Son is presented with a photo of sole member Dane Cross on his holidays, looking pretty happy with life. Frankly, if people are taking issue with Sacred Son simply because of that, then it’s further proof of how concerned with image (rather than music) parts of the black metal underground are; and it’s their loss, because the music contained within is uncompromising, forceful, and in large parts, every bit as grim as the cover isn’t.
Comprising of four tracks and being 30 minutes in length, Sacred Son is the kind of release that blurs the lines between EP and album. There’s certainly a lot of ideas and talent on display though, and a clear understanding of black metal (musical) tropes. Opener ‘Cleave the Alicorn’ wastes little time in launching in to a blast-beat propelled assault, filled with buzzsaw guitars and inhuman vocals. There’s a definite Scandinavian second wave feel to the tracks, with an icy, frost-bitten atmosphere that conjures images of snowstorms and forbidding mountains, and in that sense it reminds me quite a lot of the recent album by Void Ritual. The song lengths (other than interlude track ‘Ethereal Light’, each track is over 7 minutes long) ensure that the tracks have plenty of time to expand upon their ideas and grow, with distinct movements, whilst also creating the kind of hypnotic, all-consuming atmosphere that many black metal bands aim for, but fall short of.
Not that it all comes together quite perfectly, though. The palm-muted riff a few minutes in to ‘Apocalyptic Winter’ overstays its welcome slightly, and risks breaking the hold the song has started to build up until that point; and the interlude of ‘Ethereal Light’, at five and a half minutes, also lasts a bit too long, its bright piano and clean guitar conjuring the kind of post-black atmosphere and sounds the artwork might suggest. Whilst there’s nothing inherently wrong with an interlude track like this, and I think a lot of bands stand to gain by including such moments of contrast whether within songs themselves or as separate tracks, that it lasts so long dilutes both its own impact and that of the harsh black metal surrounding it.
These issues don’t stop Sacred Son being a great listen though, and when it’s at its best – such as around the two minute mark of closer ‘Sepulchral Ritual, when subtle melodies can be heard in the background – it is excellent. Its harshness and violence is closer to, say, Woe or Wolves In The Throne Room at their most vicious than it is the post-black likes of Deafheaven; and when its atmosphere really takes hold of the listener, it provides an excellent, awe-inspiring experience. A few aspects that are a bit rough around the edges don’t detract from that, and nor does the artwork in any meaningful way (and if the artwork does, you may want to question just how superficial your opinions actually are).
Sacred Son is available digitally and on CD, via Bandcamp.