It is over a year since I lavished praise upon Barren Earth’s debut album, ‘the curse of the red river’. It was, and remains, a remarkable achievement – a bewitching mixture of Opeth’s wildly progressive and inventive aspects, Katatonia’s unique melancholia and death metal’s searing power and it is a record that is still played regularly today. It is then, all the more surprising (and pleasing) to report that ‘the devil’s resolve’, the band’s much anticipated second album, surpasses the first in almost every detail from the stunning and beautiful artwork, to the remarkable and sumptuous music that resides within.
Pick up a copy of ‘the devil’s resolve’, either on CD or on beautifully pressed vinyl, and the first thing you’ll notice is the highly stylised and impressive artwork. Crafted by Paul Romano, it is redolent of both Opeth’s recent album and the work of H.R Geiger. The care that has gone into the creation of the packaging alone makes this a purchase that you’re going to want to make in physical form rather than the all-too-anonymous digital formats.
Place the disc in your player and you’re greeted by the multi-faceted grandeur of ‘passing of the crimson shadows’, a song so utterly absorbing that it would be worth buying this album even if the rest of the album comprised techno remixes. Opening on a chugging riff underpinned with huge swathes of mellotron, the vocals recall the Von Hertzen brothers’ honeyed melodies, while a chorus provides the requisite death metal roars, making sure that this first track will appeal to both dyed-in-the-wool metallers and progressive fans alike. If that were all, it would still be a great track, but then a beautifully crafted mid-section sees brutal riffs, harmonised solos and a parade-ground tight barrage from the rhythm section fade into an intricately structured progressive section complete with atmospheric backing vocals before the band unleash yet another tidal wave of fire for the final, climactic portion of the song. As an opening track it sets the bar painfully high, but it is a challenge that Barren Earth meet head-on with ‘the rains begin’ introducing baroque piano elements over a guitar riff that sounds frankly huge. Emotive and epic in feel, the song, complete with its Buffalo Springfield harmonies, captures a wild, folky feel that evokes visions of pastoral beauty and the Canterbury scene. The band have truly managed to harness the power and energy of death metal and use it to fire their uniquely textured songs in a way that is both brave and truly unique. As an opening couplet it is gobsmacking and then ‘Vintage warlords’ snatches you from your music-induced reverie and reverberates through your skull with a driving death metal riff and its opening roar. And yet even here, in a song that opens with an adrenalin charged death-ride through riffs and screams, the fury is subsumed for a mid section which captures the band keening for a lost age before feeding in one final barrage of furious guitars.
After such highs, you’d imagine you’d be due a filler track, but not so – ‘As it is written’ is a stunning, medieval-textured piece that cuts between The Gathering’s ‘Mandylion’, King Crimson’s ‘the court of the crimson king’ and Katatonia’s ‘Viva Emptiness’ for inspiration. For those wanting metal, however, ‘the dead exiles’ is just the ticket – a doom-laden behemoth that opens on a massive, downbeat doom style riff before finally taking off, some three minutes in, with a riff so heavy it renders the very heavens black. It brilliantly adds a cutting edge to the dynamic of the album, making you sit up in awe at what is unfolding before you as the riffs pile up and solos tear across its surface. ‘Oriental Pyre’ is equally heavy at the outset, although the eerie tones of the mellotron conjure up a mysterious atmosphere. Complete with full-on death metal roars the song contains a brilliantly harmonised chorus and plenty of sonic shocks over its run time. The band further diversify with the complex time signatures and mind-boggling array of riffs on offer on ‘white fields’ – a moody highlight on an album of highlights, with the vocals tightly bound and the riffs stripped away for an atmospheric verse that in turn leads up to a stunning chorus which sees the bass taking on an increasingly mammoth sound. The final track is a poignant, brooding set piece entitled ‘where all stories end’ that roams the wilderness between Katatonia’s stark miserablism and Paradise lost’s ‘Gothic’. Powerful, melodic when it needs to be, and with admirable rawness for the more typically death metal portions, it is a fine closer that once again demonstrates that Barren Earth are masters of the diverse.
Overall there is no weak link on ‘The devil’s resolve’ – the music ebbs and flows seamlessly, as if you were in fact listening to one lengthy composition, and while the songs undoubtedly work in isolation to an extent, it is far better to sit back and let the album take you on a journey through the powerful imagination of the musicians. There is beauty, sadness, desire, decay, pain and ecstasy all explored over the album’s utterly absorbing forty-eight minute run time, and for those who feel progressive music has lost its edge, there can be no greater argument than playing them this remarkable piece of work. At the conclusion of the last Barren Earth album I was in no way sure that they could top such a monumental debut – they could and, indeed, have done so on this stunning effort. A progressive metal masterpiece that will haunt the minds of those who recognise its charms – ‘the devil’s resolve’ is a brilliant album indeed.