Review Summary: The unlikely pairing of a folk group and a sludge metal band yields a haunting affair with few parallels.
In other reviews I've mentioned that there's really nothing new in the metal landscape. For the most part, "genre bending" music generally means taking elements of usually disparate sounds and melding them in the hopes of creating something worthwhile. What I failed to mention was that when this is done the sound is that of a single band attempting to do multiple genres. What we have here are two wholly separate bands combining their efforts into one masterstroke. This is not a split album, it is a single entity.
In the opening moments of "Wolves", the pairing of St Louis bands The Lion's Daughter and Indian Blanket firmly takes a stand that "folk" does not translate to "Scandinavian". This is folk in the Americana sense, the singer-songwriter with an acoustic guitar on his knee, singing plaintively up to the night sky. Indeed, any fan of O Brother Where Art Thou should find a lot to enjoy in this album. Indian Blanket offer up a hypnotizing guitar, his voice gently echoing, all the while the music builds behind him.
Once The Lion's Daughter emerges, the true character of A Black Sea becomes apparent. The slow supernova of volume comes across as no surprise; the song had clearly been building toward that apex, and yet the thundering riff and throaty howls still can induce a shiver. If we were to take the album's title at face value, then Indian Blanket is the black sea at low tide, The Lion's Daughter at high. This is neither an album which attempts to awkwardly have jangly folk guitars beneath sludge riffs nor simply alternating tracks between the two bands. Instead, there is an ebb and flow, a transition from one to the other as the song sees fit.
Despite this, it wouldn't be quite right to call the album evenly split between its two halves. For all its bombast and as beautifully as The Lion's Daughter meshes their noisy assault with the softer side, it's Indian Blanket (or, I should say, its main member Joe Andert) who really steal the show, culminating in the album's nearly-centerpiece, "Song for the Devil". Although it starts off with a simple guitar lick a la opener "Wolves", there is no enormous acme to the song, no bursting of furious noise to stand counterpoint. The track gradually builds, adding layer upon layer as the haunting lyrics continue to fight for airspace beneath the weight of the composition.
Perhaps it's unfair to accuse The Lion's Den of taking second fiddle. The metal half of A Black Sea is what provides the majority of the support music, and do so with the kind of deft touch one might not have expected from a sludge metal band. If sludge metal is generally a derivative of blues, The Lion's Den achieves the same effect from American folk, yielding heavy music that extends its folk foundation rather than standing in counterpoint to it. The enormous riffs and pounding drums, as well as when the vocalist makes his presence known, grow organically (or, you could say, Indian Blanket is an acoustic reduction of The Lion's Daughter).
"Heavy" is a hard term to define, because it means different things to different people. To some it means the furious breakdown of a hardcore song, to others the blast beat infused riffage of death or black metal. A Black Sea has few blast beats, no breakdowns, their guitars aren't tuned to the bottom and the songs aren't flying at 300bpm, but it is undeniably, and incredibly, heavy. This is "heavy" in the sense of being told that your parents died in a car crash or that your child will be born deformed, a heavy that sits in your chest rather than stomping on your skull. At even its quietest moments, A Black Sea presses on like a dirge, made all the better by the occasionally incredible lyrics:
"I've seen the winter dance around your face
I don't know which is colder, your stillness or this place
For I have found that frozen ground makes for a shallow grave,
And the stone, you'll have to place"
No need for tales of rape and murder or graphic descriptions of disembowelment, just a truly haunting portrait painted in equally beautiful melody.
If there is a flaw in A Black Sea, it's that its production has a difficult time (occasionally) dealing with its varied soundscapes. Andert's vocals find themselves buried behind the instruments, which is fine enough for metal where vocals are more like another instrument than the main attraction, but this is folk singer metal and deserves its words front and center. The efficacy of each band at their sound may also turn some away. The folk isn't attempted by a metal band nor the metal attempted by a folk band. But if you're geared up for something special, A Black Sea is the kind of album that makes one say "there's nothing quite like it."