The drums, with heavy emphasis on the toms, together with melodic, graceful guitars set an optimistic tone during the opening passage of “Raise the Sun”, the first song off Anciients’ debut Heart of Oak. Without hearing anything further from this Canadian band, one would expect this record to progress akin to Agalloch or Oak Pantheon’s folk-infused black metal. Instead, “Raise the Sun” suddenly flips on its axis and right from the initial riff surge it becomes immediately apparent that the music Anciients create is equal parts progressive finesse, classic rock grandstanding and grass-roots bludgeon. Sonically, it’s not a far-cry from latter-day Mastodon and Baroness circa-The Red Album and The Blue Record, and the emergence of Anciients will undoubtedly result in a multitude of comparisons. Such comparisons, however obvious or lazy, are indeed justified: Anciients unmistakably echo the precision and power of these two modern metal behemoths with frightening intent.
For example, after the elegant beginnings of “Falling in Line”, Anciients, both vocally and musically, channel the bluesy sludge of Baroness’s “Rays of Pinion”, while during the song’s middle section the band fires off Mastodon-ian progressive flourishes bound for the mesosphere. It’s a clear indicator of where Anciients inspiration lies but even though the traits of these bands are found throughout, Anciients are not confined for inspiration—far from it. “The Longest River” encompasses various moods across its eight minutes, and noticeably Anciients’ black metal influence raises its wicked head. The band’s blackened streak arises with more prominence on “Faith and Oath”, as icy tremolos and blasting percussion dominate early on, before the song plummets into “beast-burning” doom and Yakuza-esque post-metal. While the instrumental closer “For Lisa”, which follows the thrash-out at the end of “Flood and Fire”, is a delightful prog-rock jam brimming with soothing melodies.
These seemingly disparate songs and sections of songs may read as if Anciients are a band who has yet to find its own identity, and there may be some truth in this, but Heart of Oak does not sound confused or overburdened. Anciients have been laborious in their efforts to make sure the transitions are fluid and coherent, yet this Vancouver four-piece do not want to be tied to the restrictions that usually taper technically proficient players—these guys simply want to rock out. The contrasting yet complimentary interplay between Anciients’ Chris Dyck (vocals/guitars) and Kenny Cook (vocals/guitars) has a lot to do with the fluidity. This duo effortlessly cover numerous stylistic shifts with complex harmonies and tantalizing solos and, vocally, they vary between robust cleans, shrieks and roars. Granted, there are a multitude of ideas and styles chosen from metal’s broad spectrum and incorporated into Heart of Oak. But the reason this record works is because Anciients do not allow technique to overshadow the urge to just let loose and bask in the glory of a herculean vocal or a dazzling duel guitar solo, all of which are backed by an agile rhythm section—drummer Mike Hannay and bassist Aaron Gustafson—that is well equipped for sonic exploration.
At this formative stage of development—Anciients began in 2010—it’s natural for a band to sound a lot like its inspirations. It is also an essential part of growth which, hopefully, leads to eventual maturity of sound and the discovery of a band’s own distinct voice. Anciients’ own voice does scream out, but in order to progress beyond the intimidating shadow of your muse, the aforementioned influences need to be totally consumed and crystallized into a unique medium to become truly awe-inspiring. Anciients are almost there, as the quality of songcraft is symptomatic of a band a number of records down the line and the distinctive genre leaping is sure footed, seamless and exciting. There is greatness expected once this band truly breaks free to resonant in its own right, and it would be madness to doubt Anciients’ full-metamorphosis on future releases. While we wait to hear where this intriguing band takes us, we have an excellent debut to explore in Heart of Oak.