When it comes to reviewing albums, comparisons to past and larger outfits are inevitable –– necessary, even. Likening an album to a more familiar work in the metal genre gives readers a context for what to expect, and if nothing else, lays a general foundation for how to process the elements at work. But occasionally you hit a snag where you don’t just compare a work to another; you get the sneaking suspicion that the lesser album is dwelling in the shadow of the greater one. Sweden’s progressive melodic death/doom outfit In Mourning, now releasing their fourth album, Afterglow, have stepped into some new territory and certainly matured, but for the life of me, I can’t shake comparisons off and feel that it’s still a solid-at-best album dwarfed by its own influences.
It’s no secret at this point that In Mourning could be easily thought of as the logical successors and torch-bearers of what Opeth forged during the era of Still Life up through Ghost Reveries (a broad period that brought a lot of changes, but humor me). Their morose, sweeping sound, forged on their debut Shrouded Divine, grew into something more immediate yet progressive on Monolith and The Weight of Oceans, the latter of which was not necessarily the band’s best, but certainly their most daring and ambitious. Its foundation was just as rooted in melodic death metal ala Omnium Gatherum as in its winding Opethian structures and even some modern American metal tropes (read as: odd-time stop/start riffs and some chugging), and while it had some issues of being too big for its own pants, it was a generally good album.
Afterglow picks up right where The Weight of Oceans left off and pushes the band further into progressive territory, though there’s no shortage of the heavily rhythmic riff style of the past two albums. The band move smoothly from bruising but moody death metal sections into extended passages driven by clean guitar, keys, and occasional clean vocals, and the drum performance of Daniel Liljekvist (ex-Katatonia) is nuanced and tasteful, running the spectrum to straight 4/4 drives to intricate 7/8 shuffles with cymbal accents and tight transitions. The guitars smartly layer phased-out arpeggios and glimmering chords over stop-start rhythms, and the sonorous leads create a dusky, reflective atmosphere, which works beautifully on “Rise to the Above” and “The Lighthouse Keeper.” On a surface level, it’s a well-written (if long-winded) album with a mixing job that is remarkably raw and honest for a metal recording in 2016. Both the guitars and drums have a “live” sound to them, free of much of the processing and over-EQing commonplace in studios today, and everything sounds good, even at the expense of robbing some of the songs of some low-end weight and power in delivery. The band do recover some of this, though, on the opening “Fire and Ocean” and the closing title track, which sees them reaching back into the doom/death influences of their early works.
So what’s my issue? How could a band that falls into the same general category as Swallow the Sun, Omnium Gatherum, and Opeth, all of whom I love, be anything other than treasured by my ears?
Frankly, Afterglow is less than the sum of its parts, and all the artistic maturity that has happened since The Weight of Oceans sadly doesn’t change the fact that Afterglow still feels like a band growing out of the shell of its own influences — even after all these years. I’ve spent a solid month with this album –– concentrated, full listens after another bookended by revisiting songs here and there on a near-daily basis –– only to be totally unable shake the general feeling of “This sounds like Blackwater Park (or Deliverance, or Ghost Reveries)” as I had with The Weight of Oceans and Monolith, though the latter exercised more traditional melodic death metal.
That part when the full band comes in on “The Grinning Mist”? Very similar to “The Drapery Falls” from Blackwater Park.
The opening section of “Ashen Crown”? Right at home on the second half of Ghost Reveries.
The palm-muted staccato riffs in “The Call to Orion”? Straight of the playbook of Deliverance (or Ghost Reveries, take your pick).
See what I mean? The album is replete with moments like this. It’s not so much that In Mourning are carbon copies of Opeth as it is that they can never come out of Opeth’s shadow and into their own light. The songwriting and performances are all tight, but In Mourning are doing themselves no favors to grow artistically if they’re still content to walk a well-worn path that, frankly, is appealing to only fans of said band beginning with the letter O.
To add insult to injury, many of the clean, lighter sections feel as if they could come straight out of a recent Anathema album but lack the emotional impact and dynamic of that band. The aforementioned “The Lighthouse Keeper” features a midsection complete with (shudder, gasp) dotted-eighth delay on a guitar, something I always associate with U2. (Not a compliment. Not in the least.) Adversely, the heavy, chugging stop-start riffs played in odd time signatures — I shudder the use the term “djent-like” — while interesting in themselves, don’t add much to the songs’ momentum and often linger a bit too long only to arbitrarily end in a reprisal of earlier sections. Aside from living in the shadow of its influences, Afterglow‘s other primary issue is that it’s trying its damnedest to be a progressive metal album and prove it with long songs stuffed to the gills.
I’ll end by saying this –– I don’t hate Afterglow, but I don’t think it’s excellent either. It’s competently written and well-produced, and I can even claim that the band have come a long way since their previous album. But all considered, it’s merely decent and could be much more. And that’s my main trouble with it. It has all the makings to be an excellent and compelling progressive album but never quite gets there. It lacks impact and originality, in spite of all its ambition and excellent performances, making it just okay. If you wondered what Opeth would have sounded like if they continued in the general trajectory of Deliverance and Ghost Reveries, then you’ll lap this up; but don’t expect to discover anything new on Afterglow.