2016, Napalm Records
The relentless globalisation of metal in recent years has thrown up plenty of surprises. Fertile scenes have sprung up in the remotest corners of the world, far removed from where you’d traditionally expect. So it is that Be’lakor, one of the most talked-about melodic death metal bands of recent years (largely thanks to their significant Facebook following), comes not from a typical location like Finland or Sweden, but from Australia. The Melbourne 5-piece, named after a Warhammer character, have built up a reputation over the past decade as a band who sound like metalcore never happened; they’re a breath of fresh air for fans who fondly reminisce about the Gothenburg scene’s glory days.
Vessels is Be’lakor’s 4th full-length album and first to be released on the acclaimed Austrian label, Napalm Records; such a move is bound to increase the band’s profile in Europe and beyond. The 8 tracks span 55 minutes, and are all fairly epic and progressive in terms of both sound and delivery. 2-minute opener “Luma” is a short, sharp introduction; chugging, discordant riffs build to a lush In Flames-esque melody to set the tone for the whole album. There’s a brief, crisp and engaging guitar solo before the song fades, somewhat abruptly. It could be a minute or 2 longer but it fulfils its essential purpose; it whets the listener’s appetite for what’s to come next.
“An Ember’s Arc”, the first full song, starts with a gentle acoustic section that is as melancholic as it is uplifting before chugging staccato riffs and clean, crisp lead guitar parts takeover. Frontman George Kosmas has a mighty set of pipes, with his death howl rising effectively above the band’s sonic onslaught. Moreover, there are several parts where traditional death metal elements intertwine with atmospheric keyboards and acoustic guitars to create an impressive progressive landscape not a million miles away from the work of Opeth. The album’s off to a solid start.
Vessels, overall, is an intense battle between light and dark, heavy and soft, and the next 2 tracks accomplish this most effectively. Just shy of 11 minutes, “Withering Strands” is the longest track and, in many ways, the album’s centrepiece. It’s a thoroughly energetic song with a brooding, repeating riff played as a duel between guitar and piano, with a thick, layered lead guitar melody that rivals Iron Maiden at their most epic. It cuts to an isolated piano melody 7 minutes in before chugging guitars build back up, leading to a frantic twin-guitar section that’s right out of the At the Gates playbook. The ending though is truly sublime; the bands gallops along in true “Rime of the Ancient Mariner” fashion, with dive-bomb runs along the fretboards of both guitar and bass, before the introductory riff repeats again and fades; it’s the sort of song that leaves you breathless.
“Roots to Sever” has a similar mood, though is comparatively brief at 7 minutes. A gentle chamber piano riff starts things off before the rest of the band crash in, powering along at breakneck speed a la Amon Amarth at their most ferocious. Keyboardist Steven Merry puts in a superb performance here, and throughout the album, as he expertly juxtaposes his piano with the savagery of his bandmates.
The next 3 tracks, whilst not bad, are unfortunately not quite in the same league as their predecessors. “Whelm” contains great doom elements, with the juxtaposition of piano and death howls illustrating an intense feeling of anguish but it is a key example of what happens when you try and fit too much into a song; there’s so much alternating between mid and fast paces, quiet and loud parts, that the whole thing’s quite unfocussed and haphazard. “A Thread Dissolves” is a 3-minute, largely instrumental, interlude that is well executed but unnecessary. And “Grasping Light” is a decent mid-paced number, with some good folk metal-inspired guitar melodies, but is otherwise fairly forgettable.
Thankfully, the closing track, “The Smoke of Many Fires”, ends the album on a high. At 9.5 minutes long, it’s a triumphant, fast epic. It’s probably the heaviest song on the album too, with several riffs and atmospheric elements recalling the title-track from Opeth’s Blackwater Park. A beautiful mellow section then starts about 7 minutes in, which leads the song, and the album as a whole, to a truly satisfying finish.
Overall, Vessels is an album of 2 halves: there are 4 great tracks, 1 good one, and another 3 that are just ok. The album’s highlights, “Withering Strands”, “Roots to Sever” and “The Smoke of Many Fires”, are amongst the best songs I’ve heard all year and many melodic death metal fans will truly treasure them. However, it is undeniably the case that Be’lakor’s sound is HIGHLY derivative (essentially a mix of Amon Amarth, early In Flames, and Opeth), which might go some way towards explaining Vessels’ inconsistency. There’s not much here that’s not been done countless times before and, particularly if you’re a seasoned fan of this kind of music, you will inevitably find parts of it quite boring and uninspired. However, as is evidenced by the 3 tracks mentioned above, the members of Be’lakor clearly have the musical and compositional skills to be successful. Hopefully in future, with the new backing of a larger label, they will consolidate their creativity, forge a unique identity, and deliver works of greatness.