A new doom metal “supergroup” releasing a COVID-19 lockdown album in late 2022. That sentence, which describes MMXX‘ Sacred Cargo(Candlelight) in plain terms, will no doubt inspire a variety of different thoughts and feelings in people with an interest in such things. Some might dismiss the concept (album) out of hand. After all, the band’s name translates as “2020” and, well, not only is it not 2020 anymore, but the mere mention of that year is liable to inspire at least a wearied eye-roll if not a flashback to genuine out-and-out despair.
After an absence of nine years, Italian Doom/Death Gothsters Novembre return to active duty with new album URSA’(Peaceville). With drummer and co-founder Giuseppe Orlando deciding not to pursue his interest in the band any further, his brother Carmelo Orlando has stepped up to lead the way along with long-time member, guitarist Massimiliano Pagliuso, the line-up being completed by bassist Fabio Fraschini and drummer David Folchitto.
There’s a tendency with newly re-activated bands to play things nice and safe, returning straight away to a secure and comfortable place before moving onto newer things. And this, to all intents and purposes, is where we find Novembre in 2016.
Of course, returning to a safe space isn’t necessarily a bad thing. As a band, you want to reconnect with your fans as quickly as possible, and giving them something which feels new and shiny, but also comfortably familiar, is a perfectly reasonable way of doing this. Let’s face it. It’s a gamble either way. Some people would be more than content for an act to anchor themselves once more by revisiting past successes, while others could interpret the absence of forward momentum as a nervous band requiring a safety net, or just see it as a wasted opportunity.
As a result, ‘URSA’ could possibly fall into both camps, pleasing just as many people as it disappoints. The band head back to 2006’s ‘Materia’ (Peaceville) and 2007’s ‘The Blue’ (Peaceville) for inspiration, and as a result, the new record seems like a composite piece of those recordings, and could quite easily have been released between them.
‘URSA’s main problem is that, for all of the effort involved (and I must say, it is a good album with very good performances), everything seems a little too samey and repetitive. Also, Orlando’s clean vocals are quite nasal, and have a tendency to be delivered almost lazily, his enunciation often poor and listless. His harsh, more traditional Death Metal vocals are fairly impressive, but never really bite, his guttural growl appearing to be used more as an extra supporting instrument rather than a clear focal point.
Although downbeat and melancholic for the most part, there are moments of brightness among the bleak, grey clouds. Whether it’s by means of a chorus, a guitar solo, a bassline or drum pattern, each song possesses its own particular highlight. All too often though, they don’t last for more than a couple of minutes and you’re left with songs which sound great for a short space of time but tend to drag more often than they should.
This isn’t always the case though, and ‘Annoluce’, with its special guest appearance from Katatonia guitarist Anders Nyström, and the almost entirely instrumental ‘Agathae’ are superb. In fact, the songs which bookend those, ‘Oceans of Afternoons’ and ‘Bremen’ make up the best section of the album by far. A sense of pace and urgency is injected, and dare I say it, the rare upbeat moment which actually makes you smile. Elsewhere ‘Australis’ is a nice opener, and ‘Easter’ sounds like Ghost and Paradise Lost had a baby.
To be honest, there aren’t actually any bad songs on ‘URSA’ (the album taking its acronymous title from ‘Union des Républiques Socialistes Animales’, the original French translation for George Orwell‘s ‘Animal Farm‘). Everything is played exceptionally well, and the production is thick and rich, the bass guitar benefiting the most as it pulses through each track with a vibrancy the rest of the instruments don’t quite match over the long haul. It’s just that although the album has a handful of really good moments, none of them are that extra special flash of brilliance required to make the album truly stand out. After a while it feels like, although the songs are enjoyable enough, that they’re bleeding anonymously into each other, leaving you wondering if you haven’t actually heard it all before.