Let’s think about album covers for a while, shall we? Much like lyrics, album art is one of those things that usually matters only when it is either exceptionally good or exceptionally bad. Nevertheless, when an album cover captures perfectly the spirit of the music, it can elevate the entire experience – think of Emperor’s In the Nightside Eclipse, or Neurosis’s Through Silver in Blood. The songs are obviously what really matters, and both those records are stone cold classics for that reason, but a case can be made that neither would be quite the same without their now-iconic cover images. With Transformation, the debut album from Israel’s Sonne Adam, the exceptional cover art writes a check that the music can’t quite cash, which doesn’t really matter so much on its own terms as for what it indicates about the more general problems with the album as a whole.
To wit: Transformation trades in the same murky Incantation worship that is so en vogue, albeit leaning more toward the occultism of (an engaging and not terminally-dull) Necros Christos than the single-minded riff destruction of Disma, to name a few current kindred acts. In a genre with a relatively strict (and generally limited) set of precepts, Sonne Adam’s production is curiously dry, so much so that a lot of the album sounds like trying to hum riffs through a mouthful of dust. Now, it’s pretty dickish to fault the band for pursuing a different sound than most of their contemporaries, particularly when this old-school death revisionism is more or less reaching a saturation point. And truthfully, the production only seems like a poor fit during those sections when the band’s sound is at its most skeletal, with just one guitar line and some basic drum patterns backing the too up-front vocals. ‘Dickish’ doesn’t mean ‘wrong’, though, and these skeletal moments do jar the listener out of an otherwise immersive whole. See, during these passages, the songs are desperately crying out for more reverb, and for just that extra bit of filth and wheeze on the guitars, clinging and drifting like centuries-old dirt caked to the boots of some long-departed traveler. The album’s art depicts a treacherously narrow stone path leading to the center of a ritualistic underground cavern, but when the instruments are too up-front and the songs give away every nuance without any investigative work on the part of the listener, the vision dissipates, and all the listener pictures is a couple of dudes jamming in a crummy room somewhere. Bummer.
However, when the band’s sound is denser and more layered, like when it brings in some serpentine guitar leads or higher-octaved tremolo doubling, the artwork’s vision is more easily seen through its sound. This, then, is the real charm of Transformation: It seems straightforward enough on the first few spins, but there are a truckload of sophisticated touches added to the basic song structures which encourage (if perhaps not demand) repeat trips. The band’s eponymous song is one of the best of the bunch, with some subtle keyboard undertones and a wonderful mid-song riff that is impressively strengthened by the echoing backbone of classical chimes. “Shine” is also excellent, with some very odd vocal touches and a compellingly strange outro, but it is really through the use of curious guitar flashes that Transformation attempts to distinguish itself, whether it’s the psychedelic solo break halfway through album closer “Apocalypse” or the wailing guitar that rises as if from the very depths of the cover’s mines of Moria halfway through the aforementioned “Shine.” These deft compositional touches suggest that Sonne Adam is the real deal, and with another album’s gestation might even deserve absolute top-tier status.
As it stands now, throughout Transformation, Sonne Adam strikes an engaging balance between thick, grooving Incantation riffs and more searching, downcast melodic sections. The latter type tend to offer the album’s most interesting moments, but likely would not do so without the contrast of the more conventional sections. Though the album clocks at a tidy 41 minutes, there is a definite sapping of momentum between the otherwise bright spots of “Shine” and album closer “Apocalypse,” with the two intervening songs serving as perfectly competent offerings that fail to bring any new spark to the basic sonic template. Still, Sonne Adam pursues this well-worn style with a dogged sincerity that ought to convince a fair few skeptics. Plus, this might be the closest that Century Media has been to an extreme metal zeitgeist in ages, so that must be exciting for them and their families.
Oh, and Necros Christos, feel free to eat your goddamned heart out any time now, thanks.