Release Date: October 23, 2015
Label: Profound Lore
Does being a great metal album mean doing things that other metal albums don’t do? Not a very kvlt thing to ask of course, and anyway, the real question is the flip: Can a metal album be great for only doing things that other metal albums do? The thing is, people snicker at dilettantes everywhere you look, and they’re not totally wrong; there will always be people who like Deafheaven purely because they have parts that sound like R.E.M., there will always be people who wish more rappers would oh-so-tastefully append a jazz ensemble like To Pimp a Butterfly. Likewise, there will always be deep-diggers of Krallice and Doughboyz Cashout who feel that fancy stuff has no relation to their genre whatsoever and play guard at the gate. Then centrists publications like us write reviews like this that boringly point out the answer is often balancing the two.
VHÖL’s striking second album, Deeper Than Sky, sounds nothing like their first, 2013’s not-without-charms VHÖL, which was doomier, lower-fidelity, and, you know, more metal (insert three hugs of scare quotes). Sky is less heavy and takes its giant leaps forward from the band’s early highlights like “Grace,” which put melody where you least expect it and didn’t sacrifice speed when doing so. “Heavy” is a strange modifier here because on the evidence of their sophomore effort’s incredible title track (with its lasering guitar beams and airborne somersaults on the drum kit), you’d think the band was released from leaden boots. You’d also think the heavily thrash-indebted “supergroup” — members of Yob, Hammers of Misfortune, and Ludicra — stopped preferring Seasons in the Abyss to Reign in Blood.
This is light metal, not meaning watered-down or pop-friendly but freely moving with unshackled quickness, like Sonic the Hedgehog or an Olympic skater. “Deeper Than Sky” never feels 12 minutes long because even when it slows down, it doesn’t really slow down. The band’s sense of pacing is as tucked-in tight as origami, so they also know to cap off the epic centerpiece with a two-minute piano intermission called “Paino” — not a typo. Except that’s not a classical or ambient piece, but another thrash tune that good-humoredly and inventively replaces its typical six-string of destruction with 88 keys that reach something of a saloon effect when tickled with this intensity. It’s followed by “Red Chaos,” whose introductory riffs are some of the best Kerry King impersonating you’ve ever heard, and the thousand-needles edgeplay of “Lightless Sun.”
Without truly breaking any paradigms, the well-respected veterans in VHÖL do all kinds of things well that evade heavier peers, never relying too hard on the math or surprises for a thrill. If anything, its 42 minutes fly by so smoothly you’re surprised to discover there wasn’t a hitch or even a dead spot. It’s certainly not a brutal album because that’s not their objective; no doubt a song like the ’80s-hardcore bruise “3AM” will pulverize pits, but its modal decisions snap together like a combination lock. Yob singer Mike Scheidt shows range unexpected of a doom-metal bellower when he exacts some early Serj Tankian-style shrieking over the shuffling triplets in the midsection of “Red Chaos,” and the backing vocals in the chorus of “3AM” could be Radiohead’s “Exit Music (For a Film)” with the tape sped up.
These are minor diversions in the wake of Deafheaven’s highly unorthodox New Bermuda, or the carefree, metal’s-no-longer-our-problem Liturgy. But the variations are as slight and crucial as mortar between the bricks of their riffs and Scheidt’s growls and whinnies. Maybe VHÖL will read this and prefer hearing they’d made a record that takes something out of you. But Deeper Than Sky leaves you in one piece; ultimately you’re more valuable alive to hear it again and again.