Over the course of a couple full lengths and several EPs, Germany’s Owl has delivered a blend of synth-heavy ambient and dark, morose doom/death, never twice bringing the same mix or balance of the band’s two sides. When the doom/death was heaviest – the first half of the self-titled debut or the beastly Aeon Cult EP – the band had no problem proving how crushing their idiosyncratic take on the style could truly be. When the minimalism and ambience was used not just as a flourish but as the basis for songcraft – such as on the stunning The Last Walk – things were equally as effective.
While they’ve spent plenty of time blending the two poles of their sound, the merging has never been as successful as it is on Nights in Distortion, their third full-length and seventh release overall. It’s never as heavy as those heaviest moments mentioned above (but if you haven’t heard it, Aeon Cult is insanely heavy, so this is okay), and it only occasionally gets as drifty as the band’s driftiest releases, but it’s easily the best balance of the two approaches. More than that, it’s a true blend, with spooky synths constantly cutting through monolithic riffs, and Christian Kolf utilizing his vocal versatility to great effect. In short, this is the third time in about 18 months when a Zeitgeister family band has managed to put out their best work to date.
But mostly it’s about duality of personal emotions, imagery, and environment, just as the music is about the duality (and marriage) of extreme metal and lush, eerie soundscapes. Nights in Distortion manages to communicate both loneliness and warmth, as if one’s place within the universe represents both. It’s easy to take as gorgeous background music, but it’s also a nuanced album arc. The first couple songs hint at how heavy it will get and convey several moods (“Transparent Monument” has unsettling bookends but an extremely catchy core) before “Anamnesis” drops an absolute hammer. Like much of the album, the song switches off between synthy passages and crushing heft, but with each successive passage, the two elements become more intertwined. (Kolf’s layering of two of his vocal styles – both low sullen croons and higher determined yells – also moves the dynamics along.)
It’s a monstrous song and an obvious centerpiece, but it stops suddenly at its most intense moment for two reasons: First, leaving the listener with the memory of such a colossal passage is just as effective as making them repeat it, and second, the album’s story is not nearly complete.
Much of the second half then spends its time maintaining, reflecting, or subduing the impact of this peak. For example, “Inanna in Isolation” has the bluntest riffing on the record, but also gets drifty and contemplative like few other songs (and has the most wonderfully gothy 80s vocal moment). Closer “Madness Is the Glory of This Life,” meanwhile, is the perfect encapsulation of how the album can be treated as both a set of individual songs or full package. On its own, it’s an engrossing bit of gothic synth doom that feels unstable, with dissonance and eerie atmosphere closing in at all sides. Within the context of the album, it presents the slow crumble of all that came before, and is a fitting end that manages to simultaneously be both deeply unsettling and reassuring.
There’s a moment in opener “We Are Made for Twilight” that is a microcosm of the album’s emotional layers. Some airy female vocals are paired with a descending guitar pattern, giving off a bit of a My Dying Bride impression. However, it’s a version of My Dying Bride you hear while lost in the distant cosmos… or perhaps a version of My Dying Bride you hear while buried in a dank cave. It’s actually both: It’s a version of My Dying Bride you hear while buried in a dank cave after being marooned on a planet far in the distant cosmos by a genetic freak out for revenge.
You’re terrified and hopeless, but then a light begins to shine through from the far end of the cave, and you smell the blooming trees of spring.