Album Review: A Pale December – “Death Panacea” (Black Metal)

Written by Melinda

A Pale DecemberDeath Panacea
Atmospheric black metal from Italy
Label: Avantgarde Music

Black metal is a funny little genre filled with shrieks and snarls and tremolo picking and blast beats and tones drowned in distortion used to make a forceful hateful kind of tune, and yet if you arrange these elements incorrectly you get something else; something colossal and atmospheric that ponders existence and failure and futility. This ‘something’ is precisely how I would describe the post metal infused atmospheric black metal album Death Panacea, the sophomore album of A Pale December

As with any good album that thoughtfully explores the futility of being human and the failings of humanity, it’s a busy one with a lot of moving parts and emotional shifts. There’s plenty of competent build ups and pretty moments but where this album shines are feverous parts where the guitars chaotically swirl as if circling an imminent drain. Actually, this album shines in a lot of ways and should be heard more than it has. It’s satisfyingly punchy as well as moody, becoming comparable to the epic DSBM style (that I hesitate to describe as ‘triumphant’ due to the nature of the genre). 

I used the long genre indicator of “post metal infused atmospheric black metal” earlier and I want to clarify on that: this isn’t blackgaze. I know blackgaze has become immensely popular (good) but this notably lacks the shoegaze aspect of blackgaze. It is atmospheric black metal in all it’s sophistication but with the aggression and faster pace intact. The post metal side of it is practically inevitable these days as too many parts of that genre play nicely with atmospheric black metal and allow for more ways to blend gaps in the sound. The black metal techniques at the heart of Death Panacea aren’t black metal being perverted like a lot of people perceive blackgaze, it’s simply a rearrangement of those techniques paired with very flexible techniques from post metal. 

Vocally it’s a very pleasant album. For the most part you’ll hear expressive and forceful shouts with the occasional sneaky “OUGH”, and on tracks like “Iconoclasm” there’s a clean gang vocal that fits perfectly. There’s a couple of kind of gang vocals used on this album and I love it every time. The largest chunk of vocals are faithful to black metal’s weird gaspy shrieking style that unmistakably belongs to black metal. The opening to “Manifesto” sounds like it’s about to be the opening to a blackened thrash track. All the pieces and knowledge of black metal are here, they just didn’t want to make a typical black metal album. And good for them. 

Despite the long tracks and pensive concepts, A Pale December can REALLY pump up the pace whenever they want to. It’s like they phase in and out of songs, taking the space between to travel from place to place where the events happen. You get a sense of following the musicians through something large and interesting. Fuck it, it’s like Elden Ring. Hear me out. At the base of it is a large beautiful world wherein you have encounters of various size from a mob of enemies, to a mini boss to entire massive dungeons that act as an isolated level. Most albums have songs that stop and start, like a battle compilation or snapshot of a war with prelude and postludes included. This album is just a guy on a horse traveling around and encountering really dangerous and stressful shit all the time, but none of those encounters on their own are meaningful without the downtime between that makes up the entirety of a journey. This album is Elden Ring, the human brain is Elden Ring the way it just sits here calm one moment and then deep in the throes of existential crisis the next. 

If I didn’t read that these drums were programmed I probably wouldn’t have noticed as they do a fine job of accompanying the rest of the music but ultimately that is all they really do, and unlike the guitars and vocals, do not show off. It’s my understanding that this is a duo with one person taking care of bass and drum programming, and they haven’t done a bad job at this, it simply makes me wonder at what could happen to this album if it had a human drummer present in the flesh to react to things that are happening and adding their own flair. 

Bottom Line

A Pale December have a lot of vision as well as the musical chops to bring it into fruition. Death Panacea is a heady album filled to the brim ideas from the whole spectrum of black metal and beyond. They will punch you in the stomach for a minute and then spend a few minutes asking you what you thought about it and whether or not life matters if it mostly involves being punched in the stomach every day. Atmosphere without sacrificing momentum.