Although one-man black metal acts have seemed unusually ripe for mockery over the years, it’s not entirely clear to me why one dude singing songs about Satan, suicide, hobbits, dragons, or suicide by Satanic hobbit dragons is necessarily any more silly than four dudes singing songs about the same thing. Sure, it’s easier to summon images of a socially awkward, sexually frustrated keyboard warrior fulminating in a comfortable suburban misanthropy in his parents’ basement, and sure, Moribund Records overdosed on the stuff in the mid-2000s, but still, I reckon one-man black metal is unfairly maligned, particularly when one considers even this partial lineage: Burzum, I Shalt Become, Judas Iscariot, Xasthur, Paysage d’Hiver, Leviathan, Nargaroth, Striborg, Gnaw Their Tongues, and the Ruins of Beverast.
All of which is to say: Here’s another one to spite the skeptics. Although Sentinel is Spectral Lore’s third full-length, it’s my first exposure to this one-man Greek black metal project. Regardless of personnel strength, Sentinel is a mightily impressive effort of equally blasting and ambient black metal that draws bits and pieces from a large number of recognizable sources, but retains a strong identity.
One of the first comparisons to suggest itself is that Spectral Lore sounds a little bit like a midway point between Darkspace and Krallice, particularly when the complex, overlapping tremolo lines are repeated over shifting, stuttering drum beats, as on album opener “All Devouring Earth.” Some of the highly melodic sections of “The Dejection of Arjuna” are reminiscent of Enslaved and early Blut Aus Nord, while other sections mine a rather heavy Windir vibe; beyond that, though the approach is quite different, Spectral Lore occasionally displays an almost mystical kinship with the Ruins of Beverast.
As perhaps befits black metal generally, but also as a signifier of the solo studio project nature of Spectral Lore, the production is a little thin, but for the most part that suits the cosmic themes rather well. Still, given the general density of tremolo work throughout the album, Sentinel does come across as a bit too treble-heavy. Occasionally the songwriting feels like it doesn’t know exactly what to do with itself – instead of transitioning smoothly from dense blasting flurry to spacious ambient fluttering, it sometimes feels like the individual sections are just allowed to burn themselves out, after which the next section is crudely lacquered on. The songs that work the best, therefore, tend to be the ones that nestle the atmosphere and freewheeling fretwork in a somewhat more easily digestible structure, such as “The Coming of Age” and “My Ascension into the Celestial Spheres.” Some of the heavier symphonic elements of the latter evoke the flesh memory of Limbonic Art and early Lunar Aurora, and although “Quest for the Supramental” meanders quite a bit toward the end, overall it is stately and grand.
I suppose if there is one legitimate complaint about a one-person versus three- or four-person band, it’s that one person is less likely to possess the same capacity for collective self-editing. Some of the more prolific one-man units (Hellveto, Striborg, Xasthur, Vinterriket, etc.) have shown the cruel inevitability of diminishing returns more quickly than bands that either release material at a more typical two-to-three-year album cycle pace, or exercise better quality control over their material regardless of release tempo. A bit of restraint might have thus suited Sentinel, but to be honest, the album’s sprawl is a big part of its charm, which extends to the thirty-plus minute ambient piece that closes the album.
Yes, that’s right: Sentinel closes with a half-hour’s long ambient piece entitled “Atlus: A World within a World.” Some of the nearest black metal reference points would be Burzum’s “Rundgang um die transzendentale Säule der Singularität” or Velvet Cacoon’s “Bete Noir,” but you might also imagine a fully beatless Loscil, or a less noise-wracked Sleep Research Facility. Is the song essential to the experience of the album? Of course not. Even for those listeners who are predisposed to enjoy this sort of minimal ambient music (such as yours truly), “Atlus” will not likely be a frequent indulgence; however, I could see it making a quite suitable accompaniment (on a set of excellent headphones, of course) for a bout of midsummer’s stargazing. Some keys enter very subtly somewhere in the thirteenth minute, and one can almost envision sunrise on the lunar sea, and in general, the piece does feel like having finally escaped the gravity of a nearby star and attained weightlessness, with all the liberated splendor and unmoored terror such a feat suggests.
In the end, it’s possible that I might be slightly overvaluing Sentinel’s innovativeness and staying power, but at least two things work in its favor: First, I am somewhat preternaturally primed to enjoy these particular kinds of sounds and moves in my heavy metal, and second, the album is rather charmingly messy. Most of the faults I would identify in Sentinel seem to arise from an enthusiastic desire to stuff as many rad things as possible into a framework that can’t always accommodate them all. As far as artistic mission statements go, one could do a hell of a lot worse. We are to the ever-expanding universe as the tiniest mote of dust is to all the blue dread of the earth’s bottomless oceans; Sentinel is as much a humble recognition of that insignificance as it is a defiant howl of refusal of the same. Plug in, blast off, and get cosmic.