Review Summary: Houston, we're f*cked.
The glories of space travel have decorated works of fiction for decades, captivating audiences through grand narratives showing the beauty of otherworldly locales and entrancing alien life. Think Mass Effect, yeah? All the finely-rendered environments of gorgeous fauna, varied landscapes, that nature kind of stuff. For the purposes of Unfurl’s latest effort, toss that sh*t out the window; Ascension
is less of a polished, carefree jaunt and more of a violent launch into an asteroid belt where Houston has many
problems. There’s no sightseeing to be had, replaced instead by a disorienting venture into an intimidating unknown, with any instance of peace shattered by sudden attacks on the ship’s exterior. It’s not long before the Pittsburgh gang corner a listener into their brand of cosmic bedlam, gradually closing in the walls until only the empty blackness of the final frontier can be perceived.
Conceptually, Unfurl’s third record emerges from a different, albeit similarly discomforting realm--the seemingly distant, yet all too recent pandemic lockdown, and the revelations that came with it. However, as was the case on The Waking Void
, the collective’s strengths lie in their hazy, heavily atmospheric approach that portrays voyages through realms obscured, taking cues from the likes of Harlots’ early work. Where Ascension
begins to differ is how intense
it can become; as cliche it can be to describe a release as ‘THE HEAVIEST RECORD YET!!1!,’ the Pennslyvannia gents undeniably walk the walk, with an enhanced sludge edge providing an immense punch to proceedings. In instances where the audience may have once been given room to breathe, Unfurl instead increase the pressure via elongated breakdowns or unforgiving, sludged-to-hell stretches that the band wields like a sledgehammer, crushing any unfortunate travelers that pass by.
The central dynamic of Ascension
revolves around how that aforementioned sludge aspect cooperates with the trademark blackened post-metalcore sound of the group. One is constantly pushing the other, establishing a tug-of-war where each jostles for prime positioning, which crafts an experience less focused on the light psychedelic dalliances of yesteryear and more upon a suffocating methodology. In the case of “Burning Question,” it’s nearly exhausting; the tune plows through hefty slabs of punishing sludge riffs, only to intermittently burst in an eruption of blast beats and ominous guitars that possess a mathcore-like technical flair, keeping listeners consistently off-balance as surroundings shift. For tracks such as “Gossamer Ladder,” the hulking, rhythmic obliteration of Bleak reigns, inserting a frenetic energy alongside a thunderous bass-boosted groove, whereas “Trembling in the Threshold” drags proceedings to a disgusting crawl through pounding guitars. The destruction becomes mesmerizing as it repeats, drawing passengers furth in the depths as the crashing instrumentation builds to a fever pitch.
Beginning with “Hyperviolet Estuary”--a moody number buoyed by its shoegaze aesthetic and faraway clean singing--Unfurl’s sprawling cacophony blossoms into something unexpected, diminishing the brutality to allow progressive leanings to enter the fray. A once claustrophobic atmosphere, buoyed by its oppressive heaviness, expands into a sound defined by graceful melodies, careful crescendos and ethereal interludes that offer a respite from harsher sections. The concluding pair of “Entity Reunion in the Sky” and “Longitudes & Leylines” encapsulate this amazing metamorphosis, with the former gradually evolving out of winding progressive riffs into a death metal-tinged finale, and the latter developing beyond elegant strumming into a soaring melodic conclusion that delicately drifts into the distance.
From its violent introduction to its surprisingly striking finale, everything about Ascension
clicks together like a grand puzzle; the album’s flow is practically seamless, allowing the onslaught of Unfurl’s aggressive style to maintain momentum while simultaneously orchestrating smooth motions towards calmer realms. That surprise evolution--an album devoted to demolishing anything in its path transforming into a progressive behemoth--is an incredible thrill to hear unfold. It speaks to the songwriting strengths of a band that has meticulously refined their post-metalcore framework, leading to a sound capable of uncompromising heaviness offset by stray glimpses of tranquility. The all-consuming dissonance of the crew’s pandemonium leads the charge, and their haze-ridden soundscapes await to capture anyone caught wandering off into deep space. In a quiet year for -core music, Ascension
towers triumphantly as both a superb artistic statement from a young collective and the LP-to-beat in the genre this year.