As the man who IS Ephel Duath, Davide Tisso doesn’t believe in making easy choices. Following their 2000 debut Phormula they seemed poised to pick the leftovers from the appealingly-eccentric black metal with bits buffet that Arcturus were still keeping well-stocked, but instead Tisso has taken the bizarre choice of hitting the reset button (to abandon one over-stretched metaphor for another) after each album, starting again with a new line-up, new theme and a different take on a familiar sound.
It’s an approach which hasn’t always worked out for him, delivering misses as often as hits and at worst making Tisso seem like some Poundland Ihsahn, but HBL brings the success rate back up, constituting both a massive step-up from 2009’s heroically boring Through My Dog’s Eyes, and a genuinely rewarding album in its own right.
The biggest draw for non-fans is that Tisso’s wife Karyn Crisis handles sole vocal duties, the first full album she’s sung on since 2004 (save for 2012’s On Death And Cosmos EP). Her performance is initially disappointing, forsaking the rapid shift between extremes she used in Crisis for a middle-register audible rasp throughout, but once it settles in it’s a quietly engaging performance, simmering with pent-up resentment and a controlled anger which stands out from the shrieking and raging of most Extreme Metal.
The music this time around seems to take its cues from Karyn’s vocals, feeling at times like a more restrained and introspective take on The Hollowing era Crisis. This is not music that tries hard to grab you, there are no hooks or catchy melodies here, and equally no showboating tech-fests – though much of what Tisso does here is genuinely bold it’s quietly so, with little flash. Atmosphere and the building of tension are more important here than catching attention, and at its weakest the album can drift into the background and lose focus, but overall keeps the balance maintained.
Hemmed By Light, Shaped By Darkness (Agonia Records) is a quiet, unassuming album that doesn’t bellow its qualities out loud, but whose hidden depths open up on multiple listens to reveal a genuinely rich and layered collection of songs.