There are certain CDs you hear for the first time and immediately realise they are something truly special. Take last year’s top-rated EP from Barren Earth, a short taster of a band who look set to compete with Opeth in the progressive metal stakes. Here they return with their debut full-length album, ‘Curse of the red river’ and it not only lives up to the expectations levied upon it by its illustrious precursor, but surpasses them in every way.
Opening with the lengthy title track, the band set out their stall with a brutally heavy riff and some guttural death-metal growls, before introducing carefully harmonised vocals which sit closer to Katatonia than Opeth in the melody stakes. Oppressively heavy throughout, Barren Earth lighten the mood with carefully orchestrated solos which highlight the monstrous talent lurking within the band. Take opening track ‘Curse of the red river’, filled with the type of striking chord progressions at which Opeth excel, but coupled with elements of doom metal and an exquisite production that sees every growl and every nuance beautifully highlighted. At almost eight minutes, it is an ambitious opening track which is then followed by the familiar ‘our twilight’ from the EP. ‘Forlorn waves’ is a wonderfully melodic slab of metal that breaks away from the Opeth comparisons to open up new vistas of sound. Led by piano, and filled with lilting vocal harmonies it has an almost folky edge to it. ‘Flicker’, on the other hand, opens with a heavy, double-bass attack that sees the band pummelling the listener into submission before abruptly switching focus to one of the lightest elements on the album. The dichotomy between light and shade works really well here, emphasising the heavy elements of the band, while maintaining a heavy progressive edge that is more ELP than Floyd, particularly in the starkly beautiful final passages which see some truly astonishing guitar playing.
‘The leer’ is next, a rollicking ride through all things metal as the band access the Iron maiden fans inside themselves for a hefty gallop along harmonised guitar leads and jaw-droppingly brutal sections. ‘The ritual of Dawn’ is a varied track that moves from heavy to mournful ballad at the drop of a hat and which works all the more successfully for that. In truth the level of variety that this band can muster is beyond description and this track in particular, with all its metallic bluster and seemingly incongruous mood swings needs to be heard to be truly understood. ‘Ere all perish’ is a suitably violent track, complete with chugging guitar and death metal growls. ‘Cold earth chamber’ errs more on the melodic metal side before lurching into brutal territory when you least expect it, giving ‘the leer’ a run for tis money as heaviest song on the album. ‘Deserted morrows’ is the final track and it opens in grand style with perfectly harmonised guitars recreating the sound of long-lost funeral marches before the band joins in at a stately, My Dying Bride pace before shifting ground for an almost acoustic verse.
This is a phenomenal album. Over the course of its nine songs it packs in more invention than many manage in a whole career. Confident beyond belief for a band on their debut album, Barren Earth may nod towards Opeth, but they are so much more than that, standing tall in their own right as an inventive, technically proficient and endlessly engaging heavy metal band. Having lived with this album day and night for well over a week, I am still finding elements to marvel at – the awesome guitar playing at the ned of ‘flicker’ or the varied, yet consistently amazing vocals. It is early days, but I am confident that this will come close to the top of any album of the year list and it is an album you will return to time and time again. Now let’s look to the live shows. Astounding.