Review Summary: Abigail Williams re-inventing the wheel again? Someone alert the media.
Being a close fan of Abigail Williams must be one of the most disorientating experiences on the planet. Most bands at least have key elements they stick to, but with every record Abigail Williams have put out they've sounded like a completely different band. Be it the constant lineup changes (going through nearly 20 band members) or just the fact they're jumping from trend to trend in order to appeal to a wider audience or find a sound that works for them - the band just can't stay in one place. From their Emperor-worship debut album slathered with more cheese than is ever necessary, or perhaps their last album that was straight up black metal but with nothing to hold it together. Or perhaps their mix of deathcore and black metal, an idea that summons a thousand gags from the black metal fanbase - they just don't sit still.
So what are Abigail Williams doing now? With the recent popularity of US black metal bands doing the Wolves in the Throne Room thing, it seems Abigail Williams want a slice of it. The post-rock-esque builds, the non-overwhelming yet gritty production, the long and dynamic song structures and focus on rhythm guitars and atmospherics... But something surprising happens: it really does sound good this time. This time it doesn't sound like a shameless ripoff, they've really put their own spin on the sound and come away with their strongest album yet. Yes, really! But there are a few key differences. Abigail Williams are definitely not a nature-worshipping band like many of the bands they're now akin to, which instantly sets them apart. As well as that, they don't just rely on the black metal instrumentation to carry the momentum - there's quite a few interesting twists littered throughout the album. Be it a moment where the strings take over or perhaps a descend to an ascend to a big blastbeat driven climax, the album stays worthwhile to stay through until the very end. Abigail Williams are still very much a black metal band, but they've become so attune to many new elements pretty much overnight.
The band don't ease you into it, either. As soon as the album begins the stark change in direction is instantly apparent, almost perhaps making you think you got the wrong CD. The annoyingly clean and "powerful" production of the last album is gone, and most of all the album actually has an atmosphere that both feels fresh and totally works with the aesthetic. "Ascension Sickness", the first track and perhaps one of the strongest on the record, flows through its movements with a surprising amount of grace. Constantly ebbing between soft ambient-like interludes with an almost oriental undertone between pummeling yet not overdone black metal movements to make a really cohesive piece of music. Even better, the riffs are surprisingly good too, which have never been Abigail Williams' strong point in the past with the last few albums riddled by melodies and riffs too forgettable to work with the bombast they went for. Here they sound far more controlled and mature, not overdoing any of the ideas they bring to the table. The only familiar aspect here to their last efforts are the occasional lead guitar riff that takes over the rest of the mix, and where this was a cheap way of achieving "dramatic effect" before, it's done with a lot more grace and it saves the album from becoming a bunch of overbearing and predictable dramatic moments played over every track.
The surprises just keep on coming as well, the songs slowly becoming more and more diverse and less and less Abigail Williams as they go (or, perhaps more and more Abigail Williams, depending on where they go from here). By the time you get to the last track, the strings driven "Beyond the Veil" often sounds like a Godspeed piece in a strange oriental hue - the violin taking the helm of the majority of the piece and the band just bathing in the atmosphere they've created that still feels pretty refreshing even when you've hit 50 minutes into the album. The builds and flows aren't done with quite as much prowess as who they sound similar to but it's still a huge improvement to the cliché-smothered mess their last albums were. The album is paced just about perfectly too, staying engaging through its entirety with enough builds and transitions to keep you tense and enough black metal to please just about all black metal fans. Though, part of what lets this album down is the production. It's certainly not a bad production, and it's a step up from the last album, but it's a bit too clean and soft for a lot of the conclusions and climaxes of these tracks to really hit with the amount of impact that you'd expect them to. Though perhaps it was a conscious decision, especially considering that some of the named influences for this album were Godspeed You! Black Emperor, Phillip Glass and Russian Circles no less, it still would have prospered from being a bit grittier. The vocals aren't all that great too, the rasps just sound very inoffensive despite being very high and almost ethereal-sounding and don't do much to really keep the vocal department very engaging.
But it comes as no surprise that a band that are seeming to keep trying to find their sound has a couple of shortcomings, and it's incredibly pleasing to report that none of the shortcomings here even come close to ruining what is a very surprising and impressive album from a band that have far from the best track record. Becoming plays out as a band finally finding a sound that works for them, and hopefully from here they'll just keep trying to fine-tune it into a sound they can call their own. Unless they jump ship again and go shoegaze black metal or maybe crustpunk jazz. If that's the case, at least one good album came from their journey through the black metal sounds. A really surprising breakthrough for this band is a welcome one, and it may just surprise you too.
But crustpunk jazz does sound pretty cool. :]