[18 October 2011]
Hull’s 2009 debut album, Sole Lord, was a heaving beast of downtempo-fuelled post-metal. It was a finely produced album, had plenty of girth, and the songs were delivered with ample enthusiasm—all very redeeming qualities. Nevertheless, it was, unfortunately, lacking in originality. I imagine if you were lucky enough to see the band on tour the material would have sounded phenomenal live, but on record, Hull just wasn’t inventive enough to stand out in the already jam-packed, post-metal horde.
While Hull’s initial work wasn’t wholly unique, that didn’t mean it was it unappealing. The band certainly didn’t suffer any lack of ambition—check out its website for proof of the convoluted narrative supporting its debut. Hull’s first album was a good start, just not a particularly notable one.
However, I’m very happy to report that Hull’s sophomore effort, Beyond the Lightless Sky, is a vastly more imaginative effort, conveying a palpable sense of creative energy that with any luck should see the band getting a lot more attention.
Hull is based in Brooklyn, New York. You might assume that its particular take on post-metal would be infused with undercurrents of a crumbling metropolis, á la the crushing albums of fellow New Yorkers, Tombs. But Hull looks south for inspiration, with traces of the blues and a hefty strut that has more in common with Baroness—albeit on a more epic scale—and Mastodon than any bands from their hometown (although you can’t take The Swans’ grinding menace or Sonic Youth’s disparate lurches out of the equation).
The most noticeable difference on Beyond the Lightless Sky is a willingness to explore musical boundaries—both tonally and compositionally. The album is filled with sparser moments, allowing the band to craft more inventive, progressive passages. Hull’s three-guitar line-up takes greater advantage of its extra weight as well, adding cleaner, more intricate riffs over the top of their booming soundscapes. The opening track, 11-minute “Earth from Water”, spills over with new-found levels of complexity and sophistication.
The addition of more experimental acoustic and psychedelic passages allows for a reflective and accessible atmosphere to permeate the album. While it’s still chock full of punishing riffs, odd time signatures and juxtaposing timbres, the incorporation of gently spiraling and circuitous elements highlights a talent for producing songs that deal in varying shades and moods, rather than simply pummeling the listener into submission. Check out the strum and drone of “Just a Trace of Early Dawn” and the drifting tribal ambiance of “Wake the Heavens, Reveal the Sun”.
Hull has discovered the joys of fluctuating dynamics. Obviously, it was dynamic on its debut as well (what post-metal artist isn’t?) but it put those changes in temperament to better use on Beyond the Lightless Sky. While many post-metal artists fail to offer any genuine pauses, staggering from one pounding crescendo to the next, with clearly signposted breaks, Hull is happy to mess around with notions of what a post-metal band is supposed to sound like. By deferring the doom, and creating space for mellower moments, the band doesn’t just make a bit of clichéd legroom, it directs the listener toward the album’s overarching storyline—and it’s a good one, a bloodthirsty tale of sacrifice, self-mutilation and celestial salvation.
As much as Hull has drawn back from merely battering the listener, it hasn’t lost any of its actual firepower. Vocally, the band is just as ragged and coarse as ever, and Beyond the Lightless Sky is still a ferocious album (“Fire Vein” is nine minutes of unrelenting, grinding fury). The band has simply found its equilibrium. Hull isn’t afraid of utilizing plenty of harmony, and although its three guitarists must be acutely aware of just how much sonic destruction they’re capable of delivering, they often restrain themselves. It’s a sage move, because when the huge riffs and massive percussion do arrive, like on the churning glory of “False Priest” and the climatic maelstrom of “In Death, Truth”, the sheer power of that wall of noise is all the more effective.
2011 has been an incredible year for metal, with a seemingly endless array of bands breaking all sorts of cardinal rules about what metal is supposed to be. You can safety add Hull to that list as well. With an orchestral-like scope, and an adventurous heart, Beyond the Lightless Sky offers a far more nuanced listening experience than Hull’s debut. The songwriting has matured, and the arrangements are more measured, but this hasn’t reduced the band’s ability to thrash hard and thrash well. It’s a determined and significant release, and one thoroughly deserving of a lot more visibility in the realms of heaving, epic metal.