Michael Pollan’s best-selling book The Omnivore’s Dilemma posed a fairly simple question: Because of various environmental and evolutionary reasons, humans have developed the capacity to eat more or less everything. That being so, what should we eat? Similarly, musicians today have access to a seemingly unlimited array of instruments, sounds, textures, recording techniques, established styles to emulate, polyglot forms to further fracture and reframe. That being so, what should musicians play?
If you want to be cynical about it, the many varieties of music that can be reasonably labeled ‘progressive’ are a way for a band with a surfeit of ideas to avoid having to answer that question with any degree of finality. “Are you guys a death metal band?” “Nah, we’re a progressive death metal band, which means we can pepper our double bass kicks with sweep picking AND circular soprano sax while also enjoying sensible footwear and bubble tea.” But, if you can join me for a moment in ditching that cynicism: if progressive music sometimes feels like it hates picking sides, well… isn’t that worth celebrating?
Given that Wild Hunt calls California’s Bay Area home, a certain baseline amount of strangeness can safely be assumed. And although ‘progressive’ and ‘weird’ are not necessarily synonyms, on their wide-ranging and curiously slippery second album Afterdream of the Reveller, Wild Hunt are certainly both. In many places, the album doesn’t quite do what I want it to do. But the way in which it refuses to do what I want it to do is less a failure of the album and more a reminder that, as a listener, I have little right to make my own claims on the goals of an album.
Wild Hunt’s chosen style is a far-reaching sort of progressive black metal, but the band never feels committed to black metal as an aesthetic or even a blueprint – maybe it’s more like the ambient gravity on a world they inhabit but keep kicking off from. At times you might hear the inspiration of Enslaved’s increasingly capital-P prog explorations, but there’s also a jagged groundedness familiar to devotees of defunct Bay Area travellers Ludicra. The title track is one of the more straightforward songs here, but even so, weirdness extrudes. The mid-song break features what sounds like a chanted vocal arpeggio so far back in the mix that it does sound like something glimpsed in a waking dream. And when, towards the song’s end, the group returns to relatively typical blasting passages, there’s an overlay of guitar that floats like a strip of gauze, decentering what would otherwise be the focal point of the song.
The album, as is sometimes the case with various forms of progressive music, doesn’t spend too much of its time worrying about hooks. In some ways this is refreshing, and in others, alienating. “Odious Gamble” is one of the most focused tracks, and it ends on a punishingly taut high-fret tremolo that seems to stretch forever. Right in its midsection, it goes into a freewheeling dual-guitar melodeath lead a little reminiscent of Obsequiae. On that outro, though, a single high tremolo line rides atop the tension while the rest of the band digs deep into an almost math rock inspired section of rhythm after rhythm that keep bolting ahead with the momentum and then whipping it back in on itself.
As such, Afterdream becomes in certain ways unparseable. It is a beautiful, complex, richly recorded album stuffed with detail upon detail, but it’s also somehow inscrutable. The easier sell to the casual listener might be on some of the more straightforward compositions, but in truth that’s not actually when the band seems to sound most like itself. “The Last Saeculum” opens with a restrained intro of acoustic guitars, and even when that breaks into electric tones slowly crunching out arpeggiated leads, there’s enough strangeness fuzzed around the edges to give the listener pause – the guitars have ghostly doubles, and the vocals are a spoken clamor passed through a watery effect. “Choir of a Greater Sea” does a lot of very Krallice-y things, but never quite with the same intensity with which those New Yorkers sometimes seem to be pursuing a Philip Glass-style minimalism within extreme metal. Instead, there’s an inward quality that’s not so much hypnotic as unconcerned with its effect on the listener.
This tension – or is it just an expectation left unresolved? – shows up again and again. “At Once the Vision and the Seer” has an intriguing duality between the nervy, discordant, urban black metal twitchiness of its chunky main riff and the relatively open section it breaks into a couple of times which sounds almost like a clean melodic break from a mid-period Opeth song. The track opens with piano ambience and closes with what sounds like the groaning, creaking sway of a ship at harbor. “Nest of Flames” is a murkily atmospheric piece that flits and phases around for several minutes before swinging into a gently twanging, echo chamber version of something you might find midway through an Agalloch epic.
This kitchen sink sort of a review likely conveys a sense that Afterdream of the Reveller is a kitchen sink sort of album. I don’t think that it is, although I can’t quite put my finger on why. It’s as if there’s a liminal thread underlying the album that can be sensed but not seen. Burkhart’s vocals are strange, masked, discordant, vanishing, and sometimes robotic, and one sometimes thinks that in the impatience and inconsistency and shyness of that approach, those voices might be processing their own grief in real time.
Maybe here’s what it comes down to: Afterdream of the Reveller is, I think, a knotty album that sounds difficult but is actually easy and open-hearted, like an introvert who likes being around other people. I can’t shake the feeling that there’s something held back and kept partially private, which, while curious for such a public act as music, has the effect of drawing the engaged listener further in. (Such engagement is rewarded, as something like the bass solo that rides throughout the last couple of minutes of “Palingenesia” is the kind of detail that only really stands out if you give the album the time and attention to unpack some of its wildest corners.) There’s a way, then, in which the whole album remains strangely reserved, as if it’s not sure whether it wants to quite reveal itself fully. But the crucial point is that this doesn’t mean the album is unfinished; instead, it feels unfinishing.
The closing minutes of album closer “Palingenesia” become a melange of voices overlapping – guitar voices, human voices, perhaps even imagined voices. After all, if musicians can decide to play almost anything, then listeners can decide to hear almost anything. In that spiralling of parallel omnivorousness, the spirit of true connection between artist and listener can be elusive. Albums that are both as generous and uncompromising as Afterdream of the Reveller have to be seen, then, as an invitation rather than an intercession, an opening rather than a closure, a question rather than a command.