The breadth of what constitutes “heavy music” continues to expand in ways that infuriate some listeners even as it brings new ones into the fold. For every band pushing gain and clipping, blast beats and screaming to new extremes, there are an equal number challenging the notion of what it means to compose and execute heavy music, and Hail Spirit Noir, long leading that charge on their previous progressive black metal opuses, have with Eden in Reverse cast off all remaining shackles of expectation and created a revelation of psychedelic progressive rock that stands as both a natural evolution of their sound and a reinvention of what that sound is.
Given the sense of experimentation present since their debut with 2012’s Pneuma, the fact that Eden in Reverse stretches isn’t a surprise, but where the debut and follow-up Oi Magoi feel like metal records with progressive elements, Eden in Reverse feels like a prog album with metal elements. Regarding the sound there are obvious touchstones like late-era Enslaved and even Ulver, but the comparison that immediately came to mind as I listened was to Omens, the latest from Elder (reviewed here). Here was another band rooted in metal with some progressive passages firmly shucking those limitations to do something different.
There’s also the interesting way in which Hail Spirit Noir recall and employ those prog pieces in their music. Interviews and press releases note a turn toward a more modern, 70s/80s leaning in the sound, accentuated by electronic pulses and drones that bring to mind the kosmische Musik of bands like Kraftwek, Neu! and even touches of electronic composers like Giorgio Moroder and John Carpenter as much as anything. Take the opening “Darwinian Beasts” – the industrial echoes of the percussion hold the pattern against washes of noise, and keyboards work as a complete composition in and of itself, and that’s before the vocals swirl in, Cons Marg and guitarist Theoharis displaying straight-up powerhouse chops when it comes to clean vocals. As it segues to the first proper track “Incense Swirls” things get more aggressive, but the emphasis remains on creating vibrant and complex passages that evoke narratives even before you take into account the lyrics, which attempt to relay the story of Eden from a more Darwinian/Richard Dawkins point of view.
Single “Crosswinds” revels in sumptuous harmonies and chord structures that refuse to fall into simple metal patterns. And while the vocals stand out in the best way that call attention to bands like Ulver and Opeth (and yes, Enslaved) where the song turns on the dynamics of its vocals, it has to be noted how incredible the rhythm section works to move each song in fanciful and interesting directions. I often find myself looking past the (excellent) guitars to hear exactly what drummer Foivos Chatzis and bassist J. Demian are doing, and how they interplay with the band’s TWO synth players: Haris and Sakis Bandis. I would imagine it would be easy to fall into Rick Wakeman levels of keyboard antics with two players, but the fact that Eden in Reverse feels as organic and natural as it does points to how cohesive Hail Spirit Noir have become, not only as a playing unit, but a songwriting one.
Folks looking for that heaviness will find it: “The First Ape on New Earth” does shy away from a weighty opening riff before eating the outer limits with keyboard lines and Opeth-like solos. “Alien Lip reading” moves into some strange highways of sounds before returning to its unique blend of prog and narrative. And capping it all off is the 10+ minute “Automata 1980” which should tell you all you need to know about the kind of sounds held within. It succeeds not by the amount of exploration found within its wonderful moments, but in how those moments of adventure congeal into something greater than the sum of its parts.
The sense of something being greater than the sum of its parts can be applied to the whole of Eden in Reverse. What Hail Spirit Noir have accomplished on this, their fourth album is nothing short of amazing, even though we could have all seen it coming from their inception. That feeling of being unfettered, of no longer being concerned with the trappings of genre or expectation have been making for extraordinary music in 2020, and so far this album is leading the charge in my head and heart.