Review by Kep
Noctambulist – The Barren Form
Black/death metal from Colorado, USA
Releasing July 2 via Willowtip Records
Denver-based blackened death metallers Noctambulist (not to be confused with the Dutch post-black metal band) know how to capture and keep your attention. Take a look at that excellent artwork, courtesy of Brian D’Agosta. There’s an unsettling terror to it, the kind that worms its way into your mind as your eyes explore the piece further. For me, the human elements are unnerving, but it’s the spaces at the edges that worry me more. What are those blurry shapes in the background? What could be lurking in the dark corners, and could it be more chilling than what I’m able to see? That’s precisely what Noctambulist offers in The Barren Form—a creeping, uneasy sort of mounting dreadfulness that only increases as you continue listening. It’s a horror that has breadth and space, that breathes, and the most obvious elements are only the start.
The Barren Form, which will be released on July 2 via Willowtip Records (Willowtip are having a very good year, by the way), is the band’s sophomore full-length, following the well-received Atmospheres of Desolation in 2019. It’s a triumph of songwriting, pacing, and length, comprising six tracks and a little less than 45 minutes despite the individual tracks all leaning a bit to the lengthy side. Noctambulist has avoided the trap of over-indulging and ending up with an album that’s overly long and a chore to listen to (a trap that Grave Miasma fell headlong into earlier this year).
This effort is an experience of overpowering anxiety and violent fear. It’s harrowing and deadly, and it’s held together by powerful performances by all four members of the band. Vocalist S.M. seethes like a demon and roars like a wounded beast, giving nothing short of 100% of his being on every word. Drummer M.N. (Michael Nolan, also of brutal death metal outfit Cordyceps) turns in a performance that’s nothing short of exceptional, precise and exhilarating at distressingly fast tempos, but also shining in the little moments that are more expansive or quieter as a thoughtful, grounding presence. A.T. impresses on guitars as well, with a spread of stylings that reaches deep into influences on both the black and death metal sides. He makes heavy use of dissonance and eerie minor and diminished tonalities, expertly creating much of the album’s oppressive and uneasy atmosphere via pure riffage. On bass is R.H., whose playing is the least flashy of the lot, but who enhances the ensemble’s sound with a very solid performance. This brings me to one small gripe: I wish the bass tone had more body to it, because it feels a little skimpy.
Noctambulist’s most impressive trait is their ability to look inward and let their music breathe. The Barren Form features a majority of aggressive, wall-of-sound playing with breakneck speed and scorching ferocity, and it’s undoubtedly satisfying and impressive. But 45 minutes of in-your-face hostility can get boring, and so the band expertly weaves their compositions with introspective lyrics and passages of ambiance and uneasy calm that allow for the listener and the music both to breathe, but that also serve to increase the unsettling atmosphere. Take the opening track, “Exordium”, which is two full minutes of ominous ambiance that effectively sets your ears on edge, or the lengthy ending section of “Infinitesimal”, which is over three minutes of slow menacing drums and ominous distant tones (ambiance is credited to guitarist A.T.). And there are multiple moments that heighten every song by allowing a moment to peer into the dark corners and imagine other horrors. Take second track “Depletion”: there’s a passage around 2:50, after the words “Bleakness always present here,” where the guitars hold long tones while the drums meditate intensely on the toms, and there’s a brief moment at 3:43 of restrained quiet riffing from the guitar with little but cymbals in the drums that sets up the furious return of the vocals. “Hopelessly trodding forward, freely void of animus. / Desecrate your sentience.”
The brand of dread that Noctambulist focuses on in The Barren Form isn’t the kind that comes from serial killers or physical violence; no, the horror here is of the internal sort. The lyrics look relentlessly inward, finding misery and pain that terrify far more pointedly than images of gore or murder. I could pull nearly any lyrical passage and point out how wholly the music works with the words: in “Contrivance”, “Following my footsteps from yesterday. / Egotistical shuffle, I stay deprived. / No reason to consent, I embrace denial” over an eerie plodding riff; in closer “Dissolution”, “Uninvited, unbidden. / Bound by endless self-loathing” is delivered in a heavily blackened hoarse scream over tremolo-picking that encapsulates the frustrated fury one can only feel towards oneself.
The Barren Form is an album I wholly recommend as an experience. Don’t listen to it in the background. Play it loud and just listen. Let Noctambulist lead you to discover the deepest, darkest fears hidden in your mind. You’ll be crushed by the obvious horror of sheer intensity and violence without a doubt, but when you start looking beyond that into the dark spaces around and noticing the shadowy shapes of further terrors, you won’t be able to turn away.
Favorite track: “Engulfed”