Review Summary: Solid songwriting and brilliant pacing make "To Sail Black Waters" a powerful debut.
At its best, doom metal is all about atmosphere – not the kind you get from diminished-chord synths and primeval recording quality, but the way an album changes your outlook on the world around you. Ominous becomes welcoming. Bright colors become offensive. Cold becomes invigorating. Drowning sounds like a beautiful way to go when the time comes, and to that end, Secrets of the Sky’s debut is a positively suffocating slab of blackened doom. Hovering somewhere between My Dying Bride’s tortured overtures and Agalloch’s mellifluous black metal, To Sail Black Waters
moves like a powerful beast – never at more than a crawl, but with tremendous momentum and poise.
“Winter” sets the table with a run-through of the album’s dynamics. The nine-minute piece opens with a foreboding clean riff surrounded by sparse, fading percussion. Once the motif is established, it gives way to a 6/8 dirge of throaty guitar and singer Garret Gazay’s low, distorted vocals. Though most of To Sail
sits in largo-adagio tempos, Secrets’ two-part riffs play with the timing between percussion and guitar leads to draw the music forward. The main riff of “Winter” returns after a creepy whispered interlude (“I accept your gift great father / Speak to me deep in my sleep / For I shall carry out thine will / Every (every) whisper…”) to reestablish the song’s lurching groove, accompanied at various times by swirling lead guitar and layered howling. By the time the final verse resolves to reprise the song’s intro, it has crept up to a dull roar that doesn’t register as a climax until it’s absent. Suddenly you want that riff back, but the album has moved on without you.
Despite having songs averaging longer than ten minutes, Secrets makes each memorable, or at least distinguishable, by changing its formula from piece to piece. Gazay throws clean vocals in the mix alongside his growls and hollow rasp on “Decline,” while power-chord riffing gives way to dissonant harmonics. “Sunrise,” whose initial riff perhaps falls short of the rest, is buoyed by a pair of perfectly placed and uplifting (as doom metal goes) choruses. While Ryan Healy’s bass playing is audible throughout, he never really makes his presence known until the title track; “Black Waters,” however opens with a bass riff taken straight from John Williams’ nightmares, as if to signify that this
is the album’s climax. Indeed, everything about “Black Waters” screams of an ending, down to its chanted chorus of, “For prepared is my soul for this life to end / To sail black waters to the resting place / So bring me the death that I desire.” After pounding through those titular stormy waters for ten minutes, the song gives way to a haunting refrain that closes the album perfectly.
Secrets of the Sky isn’t doing anything revolutionary yet, but based on the early returns that’s probably for the best – it’s nice to hear a band focused on getting the finer points of its craft right instead of trying to invent a new one. As a whole, the songwriting on To Sail Black Waters
is well-balanced and understated in the way that made bands like Neurosis legends. While that may be setting an awfully high bar, Secrets of the Sky already has a strong foundation and an album that gets better with each listen. Though the band cites The Ocean, Opeth, Isis, and Agalloch as inspirations, those names probably wouldn’t come to mind on first listen; they are, however, good comparables in that large-scale composition skills and dynamics control have been paramount to their success. To Sail Black Waters
is among the more eminently listenable doom/sludge metal efforts of the year, and makes it easy to forget that Secrets of the Sky is only in its third year as a band. Definitely pick this up if you’re looking for a fresh face in the scene.