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Live albums – a glorious celebration of a band at their most urgent, or a badly-recorded set of songs you already own designed to fulfil a contractual obligation? Not content with pretty much inventing their own subgenre, seminal Finnish Doom masters Skepticism have decided to change the way we see live albums too, by recording their fifth album in its entirety in front of a live audience. Captured on their first official performance, Ordeal (Svart) simultaneously breaks the usual studio/live dichotomy and demonstrates a band at the very height of their confidence and cohesion.
Skepticism’s ’95 debut Stormcrowfleet (Red Stream) is credited as one of a small handful of albums responsible for creating the Funeral Doom subgenre with all elements in place, and their career since then has focussed on developing the strength of their composition rather than progressing their style; thick, mournful riffs, elegiac keyboards, tortured withdrawn growls all woven together into long but focussed songs that highlight an emotional honesty and range not usually heard within Metal. Skepticism are a textbook example of why it’s often better to master one approach than to experiment with many – musically there’s nothing on here that they didn’t play twenty years ago, but they do it with such depth, power and vision that it’s impossible to see that as a weakness.
If the songwriting on Ordeal is beyond question, the same can’t necessarily be said for the live recording. The band’s performance is absolutely flawless, and the sound is rich and powerful, but aside from a very small spattering of polite applause it’s almost impossible to tell that this is a live album at all. As a testament to the tightness and professionalism of the band it’s a striking achievement, but it’s not clear what it actually adds to the album. The six tracks of Ordeal proper are followed up by live versions of classic songs from their first two albums which have more in common with the traditional live album, but they’re strictly an extra to the main event – and even they’re delivered in a controlled, banter-free style that might as well be live in the studio. Skepticism are strictly a Let’s Hear Some Noise Motherfuckers free zone.
Whether the live performance is a gimmick or a vital part of the atmosphere is open for debate, but what is beyond discussion is that Ordeal is a masterful album of rich, textured and utterly commanding DOOM (trust me, it deserves capitals) from a band utterly in command of their chosen style.
Featuring three guitarists and two drummers, there’s a whiff of Cult of Luna hovering around Bordeaux natives Year of No Light, and it’s not just down to their multitude of members. The band play post metal with elements of drone and the occasional heavy trek into doom/sludge realms, and also operate as a kind of collective entity, with collaborations and compositional work the order of the day. In case you hadn’t already guessed, the music on Tocsin is very heavy, very depressive and very slow. It’s also very damn good.
Opening track ‘Tocsin’ clocks in at nearly fourteen minutes and doesn’t really do much until about halfway through when a menacing post metal riff makes its presence felt through the ambient noise like a mastodon emerging from fog. This, accompanied by some squalling guitar noises and simple, yet devastating percussion sets the scene for a near hour long crawl between the two pillars of doom and dissonance, a place where there is little, if any light. By contrast, ‘Géhenne’ is a mere six minutes and employs some much quicker tempos. Imagine Baroness covering a My Bloody Valentine track via an endless field of amplifiers and the crushing wall of noise that is the Year of No Light modus operandi begins to make sense. At this point it may be advisable to check that your ears aren’t bleeding.
‘Désolation’ is a much more sombre affair, the morose keys more than embodying the track’s title as we take a turn into more depressive territory. Or should that be swan dive? Either way, the feeling of utter emptiness is an oppressive one, in no way helped by the deep bass notes and mounting wall of distortion that threatens to consume all and sundry within its devastating path. You almost wish some vocals would come along to indicate a human presence, but tough luck; there aren’t any, just the drone and the void.
The haunting synths that open ‘Stella Rectrix’ are little more than a false dawn, scattered rays on the aftermath of a battlefield, perhaps with funeral doom monarchs Skepticism as the overseers. The funereal pace of the crushing guitars, marching ever onwards is utterly devastating, while the use of repetition never becomes dull, as the music subtly evolves and changes texture. This is akin to having your soul crushed in slow motion, and the thing is, you want it to happen. That’s only how the hazy drone and blackened, pummeling riffs of closing epic ‘Alamüt’ are capable of being withstood without collapsing, weeping to the floor under the sheer weight of the whole thing.
Not for those with short attention spans or those who like music with a sunny cheerful disposition, Year of No Light create challenging, intense music, and it wouldn’t be too much of a stretch to call it art. It’s art of an outsider nature however, and for those who have been looking for an act to bridge the gap between Cult of Luna and Sunn 0))), this is an undiscovered Rembrandt. And vocals? Who needs them anyway?