12 Jun 2017

Below - Upon a Pale Horse (Metal Blade Records - 2017)

Below plays Epic Doom Metal in the vein of bands like Candlemass and Solitude Aeturnus. "Upon a Pale Horse" is their second full-length album, and offers some improvements in certain fields. If the album manages to grow over time in the same way as the debut, the minor problems it suffers from will be all but forgotten.
I really enjoyed Below's debut "Across the Dark River" which had a few songs at really grabbed me right away on my first listen, and the rest grew on me a lot as time passed. I was naturally quite looking forward to the follow-up, having pre-ordered the silk-grey marbled vinyl as soon as it was available. So, how does it hold up?

"Upon a Pale Horse" opens with an ominous intro, clocking in at just over one minute, while it sets the mood just fine for the music to follow I cannot say that an intro of this type is something I listen to more than the first time playing the album. Even lifting my tone-arm over it when playing my LP.

The album then descends into the real opening track "Disappearing into Nothing", which was released as a music video before the album release. The track has a great chorus that will get stuck in your head immediately and the song is fairly representative of what this album has to offer, with heavy riffing and soaring vocals. The first thing that strikes me is that Zeb's vocals have improved quite a bit since the album before, and they were pretty damned good already back then. He seems to have mainly developed in his high register, delivering several high pitch-perfect screams throughout the whole album that lends a power-/heavy metal approach to his vocal style, which is a welcome addition as he doesn't go overboard with it either. This goes to show that there is always room for improvement, and came as a happy surprise. The guitars have a huge and hollow sound that fits the style perfectly, and the overall production is an improvement from last time as well. Very warm sounding without becoming muffled.

If there is one qualm I would have with the production though, and this is a minor one, it would be the drums. In this day and age of drum triggers and precise compressors it's hard to say, but either the drums are triggered (albeit, quite tastefully so with good sounding samples) or Doc is a very hard-hitting drummer. Now, being a hard-hitter is a good thing, but in this type of dynamically written songs I would like for it to not sound like the drummer is trying to pound the snare into dust while the guitarists are plucking cords on clean guitars and while vocals are more laid back. This is best represented in the following track "The Coven". I do believe this is a production issue, because I hear a lot of tastefully played ghost-notes on the snare in this track as well, but I miss a little of the "middle ground" between ghost-notes and pulverizing blows on both kick and snare as I don't get the same impression from the toms.

Sadly the title track "Upon a Pale Horse" is the one I had the hardest time getting into. The verses are fine and have nice interludes between the vocals with some really stable kick-drum work and the bridges are epic with church choir-like vocals. But there is something awkward about the chorus to my ears and it doesn't quite stick to my head. This track clocks in at over nine minutes, which is fitting for a song about the end of the world, but I must admit that this is the track I have skipped the most on my several times listening to the whole album. A sad fate for a title track indeed, though things are about to pick up after this.

"Suffer in Silence" is a up-tempo offering (at least by doom metal measures), and the whole of Below really shines in this track, the drums are coordinated with a stable bass line and driving the track forward with some really cool hi-hat work in the bridges. Berg and Paud play interestingly colored chords in the verses while Zeb gives it all he got, later going in to a perfect doom metal chorus. The track finally ending with one of the aforementioned high pitched screams, just perfect.

The song seamlessly transfers into "Hours of Darkness" without the listener noticing, pulling the tempo down again when the unison verse kicks in, drudging onward relentlessly. A very melodic refrain is offered with high quality vocal melodies over some as good guitar leads. To top the track off we are also treated to the best guitar solo on the album, I am however unaware if it is Berg or Paud who is responsible. The song fades away with a kind of cheesy "Yeah, yeah, yeah, yeah" that I could live without, but it's a small price to pay for a track of this overall quality.

The absolute highlight of the album is the heavy-as-a-truck-of-bricks "1000 Broken Bones", the lyrics are ferociously spat out over a catchy riff, and the church choir from "Upon a Pale Horse" makes a return with the same epic results. The track might be a bit repetitive, but if you can't handle that you are probably not into doom metal. It's simple and effective, even utilizing a key signature increase towards the end.

For me personally, the album could have ended here and I would have been fully satisfied. But we get one final offering with "We are all Slaves" which picks up with some clean guitars. That the guys in Below are fans of the Tony Martin-era of Black Sabbath is no secret, having been stated in interviews and with them even playing a cover of "Headless Cross" at live shows. This is very apparent in the vocal delivery in this intro, just listen to the phrase "The faceless masters pulling strings" and try to say that that sliding glissando and vibrato is not straight from Mr. Martin's songbook. This is a somber track, and the band gets a tad political with addressing the problems with todays society in the lyrics. The chorus is grand, but much in the vein of previous songs, and we get another fine guitar solo before the song descends into a two-minute outro.

"Upon a Pale Horse" is a fine album, and earns the same score I would give "Across the Dark River" after the album has had the chance to grow on me for three years. Meaning that if this latest album from Sweden's Below manages to grow in the same way during the year we have left it will be a strong contender when the summary of 2017 is to be made. Even with some very minor hiccups in the production, and some parts I found to not be as catchy as others "Upon a Pale Horse" earns: 7,5/10

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