There are no two ways to put it: A Subtler Kind of Light, the debut album from Greece’s Locust Leaves, is a bizarre piece of music. However, what makes it strange is not its roots — you’ll hear everything from trad riffage and black metal ferocity to a progressive mindset — but rather, its behavior. This is a very human record in both design and performance, with plenty of embellishments and improvisation tossed throughout. The band takes identifiable elements and performs them in captivating and often outlandish ways, making the album as unique as it is adventurous and addictive. A Subtler Kind of Light is weird, unpredictable, and absolutely oozing with personality.
The recipe begins with instrumentalist/songwriter Helm and mega-talented vocalist Nick K., who are aided by some very key guests. The only other Locust Leaves release to date was a (killer) split with Spectral Lore, so it’s no surprise that that project’s Ayloss provides his drifting, seemingly-improvised-but-still-very-metal guitar style to the album, and Zemial’s Archon Vorskaath plays drums. Both bring a certain pedigree, sure, but the important thing is that the main Locust Leaves guys let them be themselves, deepening the album’s sense of personality. Also present is Gemeinschaft Triste, who provides ambient flairs.
With these songs and this lineup, the album takes about no time to get kinda nuts. Opener “Light (Fos)” begins in standard enough traddy riffage terrain, but within a minute or so, some highly theatrical singing and slightly proggy music make it sound as if you’ve been listening to it build for several minutes. The feeling of dramatic righteousness is almost immediate, as are the zany noodling and intense experimentation, sometimes all at once. The song shifts from muscular, near-thrash riffs to speedier black metal passages with harsh vocals to expansive moments with beautiful leads and back again. The whole of it ends up sounding kinda like Hammers of Misfortune as filtered through Greek black metal and influenced by some really melodramatic musical theater actors. Only stranger and more unpredictable than that would indicate, but just as infectious.
“Pillar (Vraxos)” flips this general formula on its head, providing a much moodier atmosphere in which a more restrained Nick K. crafts a story by expertly changing up his melodies while the lead guitars duel throughout. It sounds at times sorrowful, and at others rather intimidating, all while the instruments are doing whatever pleases them. “Fall (Ptosi)” makes equally acrobatic moves through mood and tempo; its beginning communicates a feeling of loss, like some massive structure being disassembled, but it eventually carries an intensity that feels like resistance to this destruction. All the while, Nick K. is changing up his vocal attack, Archon Vorskaath is adding drum flairs small and large all over the place, and the riffs refuse to settle into any normal pattern.
And that’s how the album gets to you. Everyone gets their chance to be more than a little self-indulgent; that includes the people performing these songs and the songs themselves. Would a mindset of “serve the song” have made this an initially easier or clearer listen? Sure, but only initially, and it also would have made it a far shallower album in the long run. Being reserved is not the in Locust Leaves company handbook, thank goodness.
If one complaint is to be made, it is that the album is almost teasingly short at only 35 minutes, and over 6 minutes of this is made up of an (admittedly quite effective and eerie) ambient track. Still, within the sub-half-hour of metal here, Locust Leaves have packed more riffs, leads, flamboyant melodies, tempo shifts, and collective charisma than most bands manage to pack into four hours.
Plenty of discussions of great debut albums talk a lot about potential and promise, about how a band has stated their purpose and announced themselves to the world. But A Subtler Kind of Light feels less like a statement of purpose than it does an invitation into the strange visions and worlds of adventurous musicians. Adventurous musicians who really know how to throw a wickedly fun, unforgettable party, that is.