The first thing that you notice about the new November’s Doom album is that it comes clad in some stunning artwork courtesy of Tommy Genest whose distinctive work graces not only the cover but also the inlay as well, providing the booklet with a grim look that is entirely in keeping with the music on offer. The next thing to bear in mind before you’ve even heard a note is that expectations for this album were high, not only because it is the band’s eight release in an illustrious career, but also due to the fact that the legendary Dan Swano was behind the mixing desk and even went so far as to provide vocals for ‘of age and origin’, while ex-Gathering/Devin Townsend singer Anneke Van Giersbergen also appears on one track with her distinctive and stunning voice. In short ‘Aphotic’ has a weight of expectation attached to it but it takes all of about forty seconds of the first track to appreciate that the band have gone above and beyond those expectations to create an epic, beautiful and often thrilling journey into their own personal heart of darkness.
Opening with the epic ‘the dark host’, ‘Aphotic’ starts out with a single echoing violin in the dark which is suddenly and unexpectedly torn to shreds by a gigantic guitar riff that is funeral slow and weightier than ‘the Black Album’. As soon as you’ve got used to the pace, the real track begins and it is a brutal slice of death metal that rages at you with an unexpected ferocity and virtuosity. Larry and Vito’s dual guitars sound simply monstrous, while the rhythm section of Mike and Sasha keep things lively and the band’s propulsive attack is topped off by Paul Kuhr’s ungodly rasp which simply dominates the track especially when he switches from brutal deathly growl to stunning clean vocals without so much as blinking. Then, as abruptly as the band appeared to smash everything to pieces the track takes a vaguely Opeth-direction and like the calm at the heart of the storm, the music takes a quietly melancholic turn. It’s an awes-inspiring opening and instantly aligns the band towards the top of the genre. As the violence creeps back on and the song ends in a barrage of kick drums and frenzied riffs you wonder why more bands can’t be this shockingly inventive and contemplate what might be coming next after such an epic scene setter.
‘Harvest scythe’ is the next track up and it is no less impressive than the previous cut. With a monumental riff at its heart, it’s an adrenalin soaked masterpiece that couples Paul’s astounding lyrics with a rhythmic barrage of epic proportions. The production, as across the whole album, is absolutely top-notch with every instrument afforded exceptional clarity and power and the tracks surge out of the speakers with a rare vitality that does both band and producer full credit. A shorter track than the massive ‘the dark host’, ‘Harvest scythe’ lasts a brief four minutes and then you’re into the trudging might of ‘buried’ which alternates between bludgeoning guitar and the barest of verses that sees everything stripped back to the bare essentials allowing Paul’s bile-soaked vocal performance to take centre-stage. It is, both musically and lyrically, unnerving stuff but delivered with such powerful conviction and precision that you don’t doubt the bloody intent implicit in the lyrics.
In the midst of the chaos, where blood had previously flowed with abandon, beauty suddenly springs forth for the fourth track, the elegant, elegiac ‘what could have been’ which is compositionally the exact middle ground between Opeth’s ‘Damnation’ and The Gathering’s ‘mandylion’ thanks to the stunning picked guitar work and the appearance of Anneke Van Giersbergen who duets with Paul to stunning effect. It’s a gentle, lovely track that haunts the memory long after the album has run its course. Of course, as in real life, such beauty is only fleeting and the band unleash the exceptional ‘of age and origin (part 1: a violent day)’ which features a rare appearance from Dan Swano on vocals as well as a guitar riff that could flatten an elephant. It truly is quite astonishingly heavy, intelligently written and beautifully played, especially when a harmonised briefly pierces the gloom towards the song’s climax and we’re left trying to piece our shattered skull back together just in time for the beautiful ‘of age and origin (part 2: A day of joy)’. It is a stunning two part epic that marks the darkest heart of the album and clearly highlights the fact that November’s Doom are a band who not so much deserve as demand your attention.
‘Six sides’ is the penultimate track on this astonishing record and it is Sasha Horn who comes out on top with what can only be described as the drum sound of the Gods. Remember when you first heard Meshuggah? That’s how insanely huge the drums sound here while Paul heads off on a pure My Dying Bride tangent unleashing a clean tone that is deeply sombre and bereft of joy and the perfect foil to his usual embittered growl. Meanwhile the riff that powers the track is a vicious little beast that aims to flatten you against the wall with its sonic shock and awe approach. It is also here that you realise just how much bassist Mike Feldman brings to the mix with his beautifully fluid work always subtle and yet perfectly balancing the sonic weight of the main riff, his prodigious talent deserves recognition and he may be the unsung hero of the band. Final track ‘Shadow play’ brings the record to a gentle, atmospheric close and, at only eight tracks, it is clear that the band know not to overplay their hand leaving you desperate for more even as they’ve had you shaking and sweating in the palm of their hand for the whole of the previous hour.
Quite what happened to November’s Doom for the recording of ‘Aphotic’ is not clear, but always an excellent band they have upped their game by a considerable way for this record. This is not meant as a sleight on their previous material, it is simply that ‘Aphotic’ is a timeless, epic masterpiece that, if there is any justice in this world, will be proclaimed in the same breath as Opeth’s ‘Watershed’ and My Dying Bride’s ‘turn loose the swans’. Everything from the monstrous production sound of Dan Swano to the beautifully orchestrated guest appearances just works and the song-writing skills the band have deployed are second to none. Gut wrenchingly heavy in places, stunningly beautiful in others, November’s doom know the value of imbuing their work with a light and shade and the result is a stunningly dynamic piece of work that is utterly flawless. If we gave marks this would be a clear candidate for ten out of ten or whatever arbitrary score we may choose to assign, but in the final analysis this is an essential release for fans of haunting, progressive-tinged extreme metal and in a day where I’ve already been stunned by the immense Dirge’ it is no mean feat to find a record which is as impressive albeit in a rather different musical vein. This is an essential, timeless, stunning record that will sit proudly in my collection and which I am sure to still be playing and finding new elements to admire in years to come. Simply and unarguably outstanding.