Written by Greg Schwan
Thy Listless Heart – Pilgrims on the Path of No Return
> Atmospheric doom metal
> England, UK
> Released November 22
> Hammerheart Records
In Pilgrims on the Path of No Return’s massive 14-minute closer “The Search for Meaning”, mainman Simon Bibby laments that “All our gods are broken”. However, it’s unclear where these Gods come from. Are they figments of our own imagination? Or are they actually real, somewhere…out there? For Thy Listless Heart, I suspect the former (earlier, the same song laments, “What is this life? Vanity all”), that the Gods we’ve only created by and for ourselves have become unmoored, so to speak. One might argue it doesn’t matter: either way, we’re both on our own and we all journey in the same direction. That said, keep in mind that Bibby refers to us as “pilgrims”. A pilgrimage is, by definition, to a holy place. Suddenly, I’m not so sure that we’re alone in the grander sense–suggesting something much crueler and more devastating.
Ultimately, you won’t find any answers from Bibby on these questions. One gets the feeling that our narrator isn’t so much omniscient as plaintive observer. Introspective, sure, but no more knowing than anyone else. This towering voice which dominates this album can only plead. And plead it does, as on “The Precipice”: “ Walk away from the end / Let me help you carry this weight…” Once again our narrator yearns to draw out what is common to our human experience, the most essential and the most immutable. There’s little here of hyper-individualism or nihilism. Quite the opposite, in fact.
What should be obvious at this point is the power and centrality of Simon Bibby’s vocal performance on this album. While the words may lament, the combination of Bibby’s timbre, delivery, and economical phrasing I can only describe as an experience that lifts one up. This is the type of music that I want to sing along to from the top of my lungs, headbanging in slow motion. I don’t think my pipes would hold up, but it’d be worth a shot. Set against the rich guitar harmonies that fans of the Peaceville sound like myself will simply never tire of, the sum here is simply moving. Where keyboards come into play they embellish and never crowd or cheapen the experience; the drums do exactly what they have to do—no more, no less. More often than not the pace moves along at a rate close to perhaps the genre’s pinnacle, Anathema’s The Silent Enigma.
To be clear, Pilgrims on the Path… employs tropes like any other subgenre, but its emotive nature is its greatest weapon—one which never tires. And note that Pilgrims on the Path… isn’t afraid to take thoughtful risk, as “When the Spirit Departs the Body”, perhaps the album’s most despondent track lyrically, dips into a major scale progression. (Note: smart move here to follow that track with “Confessions”, which is one of the heaviest songs, upping the tempo just a bit with a gallop.) This is a release that weaves together a rich and coherent tapestry of so many of the greats: I found myself hearing early Anathema, classic Candlemass, and even criminally underrated legends like While Heaven Wept and the mighty Solstice.
- This album is produced by Esoteric’s Greg Chandler. To my ears, the album’s overall equalization skews more towards the proverbial wall of sound than favoring a crystal clear separation of the instrumentation. This seems consistent with how I experience Esoteric, and it works quite well here. Moreover, this is yet another modern album that doesn’t succumb to the temptation of brickwalling. Bravo.
- If we are moving towards an actual holy place, God’s existence opens the door to the defiance of Ivan Karamazov, one of literature’s most humanistic and affirmative moments. Bibby doesn’t take this path lyrically, but it feels so close…
- The growls are an interesting choice for this album, and I’m relieved that Chandler and Bibby chose to mix them relatively lower. To be clear, I do find them additive, but it would have been a shame had they competed with the lead vocal. Here they are more of a detail or a layer, which was a shrewd move.
- Nearly every song on this album feels like it could be the closing track. I.e., all the songs have an emotional crescendo that could end the album effectively. The track order feels right, but I could see other combinations that would also work.
THE BOTTOM LINE
We’re all probably accustomed to doom metal being described as downtrodden, melancholic, and mournful. I’m not sure what it says about me, but powerful doom metal simply never makes me feel this way, really at all. Doom metal for me is a restorative experience that takes sorrow and weight, and transforms it into triumph and affirmation. No metal subgenre can match this when it’s done well. Pilgrims on the Path of No Return succeeds in this, and is a stunning work of modern doom metal that draws deeply on the seminal bands of the subgenre, but is by no means derivative. This is a work that pays homage in a manner many will recognize, but also has an identity all its own. I look forward to the follow up.