Sojourner – Empires of Ash (2016) – Review

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Picture this: A kiwi band from Dunedin in New Zealand, now based in Scotland (of all places), sporting a Swedish frontman from Malmö. Meet Sojourner and their debut full-length album Empires of Ash.

Their tune is something like Jethro Tull got married to Clannad (ok, not metal, I know) and then met Ashbringer. All that jazz placed into a landscape reminiscent of Caladan Brood and Summoning combined.

So, what empires await thee?

If you are looking for something to tell you what dwells on the disk, just check out the album cover first. But the album is not that predictable after all. Somewhat to my surprise, I found Atmospheric Black Metal at a very high level of quality. Way beyond what is usually present in this very specific metal niche.

You know, Empires sounds a lot like the Lovecraft-esque mad piping that this specific author liked to associate the Great Old Ones with. Combined with tough metal. A fitting mix indeed. And – lo and behold – the songs were written and recorded at R’lyeh Studio in New Zealand. Hoots!!

Now, the story gets wilder: Bass written at The Beardroom in Wellington – again NZ. Male growls recorded at Arcane Studio in Malmö, Sweden. Female vocals taped in Dundee in Scotland, home of the Scottish space cowboys saving the galaxy out of there with the help of astral dwarves and their cosmic rage. To top it, they sent all that to Italy for mixing and mastering in Milan.

Now, THAT’s pretty wild. And good for them that this did not descend into some sort of unspeakable mayhem. 

Or did it? 

If anything, it is very controlled mayhem, as is due the Atmospheric Black Metal the band projects. I am glad that the overactive fantasy writers and game developer geeks created these very visual, magic landscapes with ghosts, elves, dragons, and wizards. Epic cities and castles that would never survive the light of day, filled with mystical creatures.

And this is how Empires of Ash comes across. Whilst not based in any of these dream worlds, Sojourner paint a landscape in big strokes of vivid colors. Their very folksy brand of Atmospheric Black Metal is so delicately balanced that the die-hard metalheads will probably retreat in disgust.

But look at it that way:

For once nobody in the spiked fist department is trying to beat you into submission with live corpses hanging from inverted crosses. And to top it, this is music made by real people. Not the over-synthesized garbage Atmospheric Black Metal outfits often like to present you with. Usually from some of the out-in-the-woods two-man bands, hailing from somewhere out in the boonies. Okay, I get it, some of them are in enemy territory and need to remain anonymous, but most don’t.

Empires of Ash has got a few issues, though.

Compression is at such levels in certain parts of the landscape that we lose the vocalists. Further, the mastering engineers built a solid brick wall around all of them tracks. It is as if they wanted to construct a fortress against the forces of evil.

But methinks it is just the evil label having a fit and protecting the (supposed) will of the people, but for sure not yours truly. Just check out Empires of Ash (the title song). Specifically, Chloe Bray‘s part, and think what could have been done with better mixing and mastering.

Okay, the loudness takes some of the dreaminess away and gives the album a rougher countenance. But again, this practice mushes things down to some strange, overcooked amalgam, where you can only wonder where the tune went at times. Or have we got too many elements fighting for attention at once? Seems to be a sign of the times, ’cause a lot of records I review are having the same problem. It is high time for the record labels to stop insisting on loud everywhere. We are losing the music and this is a pity. 

The bad out of the way, where’s the good?

The way Sojourner join Folk with airy parts, all of a sudden descending into metal is outstanding. Having two vocalists – Emilio Crespo for the growls and Chloe Bray for the clean vocals – takes them beyond the usual Beauty and the Beast crowd. And to me, this is one of the main elements making them stand out from the mean masses, not having tried to beat that specific dead horse.

Empire of Ash is full of these interludes in clear voice, all of a sudden projecting this majestic atmosphere of calm onto the production. What threw me is the clear-voice folk interlude – The Pale Host – a full-blown track instead of one these silly injections we get from other bands. And it takes courage to get this kind of track into a basically metal concoction, facing the angry masses of die-hard Black Metal enthusiasts that are especially virulent in this specific genre.

But back to the top of the tracklist. Bound by Blood opens up with some piping, but then installs itself firmly in the genre the band wishes to cover. I like the second offering Heritage of the Natural Realm, an epic piece always reminding me of the more melodic parts Summoning was able to produce.

The mid-tempo track Aeons of Valor contains one of Bray‘s airy contributions that kick that track up a notch. My favorite – Homeward – takes you on a somewhat solemn journey, showing the essence of what the album is all about. 

Empires of Ash ends with an epic 12+ minute track of the same name – sadly also the weakest contribution to this tracklist. 

The album does not let up until the end!

No fillers, no loss of steam until the end. Well, almost – the last epic piece gets lost in translation somewhat, but this is a minor quibble compared to the rest. On top of all, they are not afraid to go full-length epic with none of the tracks shorter than 4 1/2 minutes.

So, what empires have we got here?

Sojourner refreshingly take the notion of Atmospheric Black Metal to the next level, getting rid of the drum machine and going for it full tilt with real people. And it takes courage to replace large portions of what would be pound-you-in-the-dust Black Metal with folksy parts. 

Taking this mighty ship of theirs out of the somewhat dusty and synthesizer-ridden realm into the open seas of inventive, epic metal offerings will make this band go far. Very far. 

Ed’s note: This record also features on the 2016 Top Ten Records. And the Intermittent Digest IV.

Record Rating: 8/10 | Label: Avantgarde Music / Fólkvangr | Web: Facebook
Release date: 25 May 2016

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