The reunion of Norway’s In the Woods… a few years ago was as pleasant as it was unexpected. In the 90s, the band released three wildly different albums that brought a whole lot of sweeping dynamics, unabashed beauty, and sadness to varying blends of black metal, doom, avant-garde and symphonic rock, psychedelia, goth, and more. Two of those records – debut HEart of the Ages and its successor Omnio – are considered classics by the band’s smaller than deserved but dedicated fan base. They had nothing to prove, so a reunion that was more than just some festival gig victory lapping was surprising indeed. More surprising was that the group’s duo of 90s singers (Synne Larsen and Jan Transeth) were not part of the reunion, with vocal duties being handed instead to James “Mr. Fog” Fogarty (Ewigkeit, Jaldaboath, Old Forest, others).
After Pure, core members Christopher and Christian Botteri departed, leaving drummer Anders Kobro as the lone remnant of ITW’s 90s run. At this point nearly all other bands would have called it a day, but Kobro and Fogarty obviously liked their musical chemistry, so they decided to bring in session guitarists Bernt Sørensen and Kåre Sletteberg, and move forward with the name.
The result of this mostly new ITW is Cease the Day, an album that will probably please, anger, and/or confuse different segments of the band’s fan base due to being actually recognizable as ITW. This should make it instantly comfortable to most but may be a bit of a turnoff for fans that grew to love how much the band shifted on each album. Thankfully, the quality of the songs means that the sure-to-be-pleased segment should greatly outnumber the grumps.
Still, there is a slight urge to call Cease the Day a safe record, but that doesn’t really hold up to scrutiny. First, “Safe Veteran Records” are for much bigger bands that have a decent amount of cash waiting for them when they deliver yet another album that sounds like their classics (think post-reunion At the Gates or Carcass; all quality, all very safe). Second, the record has over 53 minutes of new music that was written and recorded in under two tumultuous years, a feat that undoubtedly took huge amounts of both inspiration and motivation from those involved.
And they were clearly inspired. The record is crammed with great riffs both doomy and aggressive, great vocals both crooned and screamed, and a fresh interpretation of past ITW sounds, if not necessarily new ITW sounds. It retains much of the doom and gothic nature of Pure but furthers that record’s reintroduction of semi-extreme metal. Opener “Empty Streets” shows how the album is a constant balancing act of the refined and the primitive, changing between atmospheric doom and harsh, mid-paced blackened metal. Each balances the other, with riffs often making only slight changes to accompany what Fogarty is doing on vocals. Call it Pure of the Ages, if you want; “Still Yearning” is even a deliberate callback to HEart opener “Yearning the Seeds of a New Dimension.”
The light/dark balance (or really dark/darker, because the vibe is never really happy) is the common thread through a consistently strong set of songs that offer just enough variations in approach to move things along. “Strike Up with the Dawn” finds a quality melodic marriage of doom, death, and black metal while providing just a splash of symphonized pomp; “Substance Vortex” maximizes the bombast with a little assist from the record’s guitar-centric, slightly-stripped-down production; “Transcending Yesterdays” is an extra aggressive romp loaded with infectious riffs and another great chorus vocal from Fogarty. The latter is even presented as a “live” track complete with crowd noise and a rawer sound. Odd as it may seem at first, it makes the song seem even wilder while giving the album a late shot of heightened energy.
It’s also worth noting that a lot of metal history has happened since ITW broke new ground during the 90s, so it’s to be expected that the current band sounds not just like themselves but also the bands they influenced. There is Agalloch in “Cloud Seeder” and Atlantean Kodex-by-way-of-Bathory-by-way-of-Omnio in “Respect My Solitude,” not to mention the obvious Woods of Ypres vibes created by Fogarty’s voice being quite similar to that of the late David Gold.
But it’s also okay if ITW sometimes sounds like their obvious followers, just like it’s okay if ITW sounds like themselves. Most importantly, it’s okay if ITW is no longer the groundbreaking act it was 20 years ago, because Cease the Day is more than good enough to overcome any skepticism about the lineup or lack of real musical evolution. Like Pure, this isn’t quite able to match the early records in overall brilliance, but also like Pure, it is at worst incredibly pleasant and at best quite stunning, likely both due to and in spite of the the circumstances that led to its making. Kobro and Fogarty took a leap of faith in keeping the band alive and landed on very solid ground.