Review Summary: An exercise in freedom, individualism and lacking aptitude
I am always impressed when an artist or a band abandons all ideological restrictions regarding genres. Many will say "some things should stay pure", black metal fans being among the most serious offenders - and some artists will just smile widely and say "I couldn't care less about all that ***". It's the ultimate expression of creative freedom, taking what you like from whichever genres and styles that you like and merging it into a sound that defines you. It is quite ironic that many early black metal artists proclaimed that one of the paramount values of their genre was individualism - while simultaneously being practically enslaved to certain musical tropes, creating one of the most homogenous metal genres out there. Keep of Kalessin have certainly never been one of these bands, creating quite a distinct sound for themselves over the years - one based heavily on the pulsating black metal drumming, symphonic underpinnings and medieval-like sense of melody. Their failure to stay within the "acceptable boundaries" of black metal has aggravated many a fan of the genre, which is made even more perplexing by the fact that the band's deviations never involved a sacrifice of heaviness, so it defeats the whole argument of them "selling out", as it were. The band's choice of style definitely wasn't inspired by them catching the scent of money, much unlike one other successful Norwegian black metal band we all like the early records of.
Epistemology is an album where the band sounds even less like black metal compared to their earlier efforts like 2008's Kolossus, leaning closer towards spacy and proggy aesthetic regions than ever before. Clean vocals are prevalent and often used to convey catchy, anthemic choruses - one could almost think they're going for "Scar Symmetry of black metal" here, which is further supported by the esoteric (yet not very dark) lyrical content of this album. The listener will also hear many bluesy and ambient influences throughout, while the venomous minor chords typical of black metal have been minimized, though still appear from time to time. Many songs on the album are very long, which unfortuntately doesn't do them much good - the length was achieved through needless extension and repetition of certain riffs and sections, something you could call "the Metallica syndrome". Ironically, the shortest song not counting the intro, "Universal Core" is among the most interesting moments of the album.
Which brings me to the album's disadvantages. While the experimentation is very welcome and the style quite satisfying to listen to as a whole, Epistemology feels like only a half successful attempt. The band were clearly going for grandiose and progressive here, but one's sadly forced to notice that the songwriting is not good enough to fully achieve this goal, good try though it may be. There are no unpleasant moments on the album, but there are quite several that serve better as background music to doing something else than as a sole listening focus. Other than that the monotonous drumming of black metal is really quite a disadvantage on this album. Old habits die hard for sure, but it stands to reason that progressive music needs dynamics to work - blast beats all the time are quite detrimental to this purpose, and are one of the gravest sins of most black metal bands, while ironically being one of their most immediate identifiers. Keep of Kalessin need to learn that constant exposure to a single sound, as extreme as it may be, desensitizes the listener. The band need yet to master the art of tension buildup and release that they desperately need if they ever hope to succeed in this progressive direction.
A glaring display of this lack of dynamics is the ending of the title track and album closer, Epistemology. Generally one of the better numbers on the album - of special note is its ending, which had the potential to be one of "those" endings - those amazingly built up finales that you always look forward to in the song, and can't have enough of them once they come, like in Be'lakor's "Countless Skies" or Disillusion's "The Sleep of Restless Hours". Unfortunately, Epistemology's ending only fulfills the criterion of having a great melody, the dynamics part is frustratingly botched by the monotonous drumming, which practically doesn't change throughout almost all four minutes of the ending. And it would have been so easy to get this right too - ironically there are no blast beats in this section whatsoever, while it could really have used at least four bars or so. The band probably wrote themselves into a corner by abusing blast beats where they really weren't needed, and thought they shouldn't use it in the one place that could actuallyy have used them. This is just one example of the small things that would have made this album fantastic, and yet the band lacked the subtlety to account for.
That said, despite its flaws, Epistemology definitely deserves credit where it's due - Keep of Kalessin are tirelessly attempting to break new ground and try new things, which is always commendable. The clean vocals have graduated to a full inclusion rather than a sparingly used oddity and the cinematic, grandiose sound as a whole is definitely a good direction to go in. The album might not stay in constant spin for most, but there are definitely moments worth revisiting. Even though Keep of Kalessin bit off more than they could chew on this album, we can only hope on the next one they improve their dynamics, then we might get something really spectacular from them.