The temptation when writing about a band like Hungary’s Sear Bliss is to obsess over what is so unusual about them (a horn section in a metal band) and neglect explaining how they excel at the thing which is very common about them (atmospheric/progressive black metal). Because yes, let’s face it, horns in black metal is quite unusual. However to make that the main selling point – “Oh man, have you heard this band? They put a trombone ‘n shit in their black metal! High five!” – is to turn them into a novelty piece, a curiosity to be collected and used as trivia but never really experienced or appreciated.
Now in their 25th year of existence and on their eighth (!) album, Sear Bliss plays with the confidence of a band that knows its precise strengths but still revels in finding new ways to outstrip past heights. On Letters from the Edge, the horn’s tone (apparently the horn “section” at the moment is only Zoltán Pál’s trombone) is rich and full, but it’s often mixed so seamlessly against the guitars that they blend in much more than they jut out. The Windir influence is occasionally more pronounced here than on previous albums. The main tremolo melody of early album highlight “Seven Springs” is both acrobatic and uplifting, all the more so when buttressed by the powerful chorus (backed by both horns and keys in a rich splash of sound).
Nagy’s low rasp sometimes feels a little high in the mix and not quite charismatic enough to sell songs which are otherwise jam-packed with character, but this is one of the only slight downsides to the album. Although Sear Bliss frequently evoke other bands, they do so with such a lingering force of personality that it feels a the natural sort of rubbing-off across peers rather than intentional aping. On a track like “Leaving Forever Land,” for example, Sear Bliss sounds indebted to Enslaved’s latter period (particularly an album like Vertebrae), while “Shroud” sounds like a sad Amon Amarth epic.
Ultimately, the moments where Letters from the Edge remind the listener of similar artists serve to highlight the remarkable and slightly unfathomable fact that Sear Bliss has been quietly plugging along without nearly the same level of acclaim as their peers (nor nearly the level of attention that their consistently sterling quality ought to warrant). So, if Sear Bliss is a new name to you, get ready for that unparalleled joy of diving deep into a new-to-you veteran band’s back catalog. But if this ain’t your first time at this particular Hungarian rodeo, rest easy that all is as it should be. Just… hush up about the horns a bit.