Astronomers have been using the same method since the ancient-Babylonian times to predict exactly when lunar and solar eclipses will occur. Specifically, a measurement called the Saros cycle, which, for reasons far beyond the ken of the rest of us who don’t spend every waking hour mapping the stars, comes out to every 18 years, 11 days and eight hours. The symmetry of it all is astounding; those moments when earth, sun and moon aligned captivating mankind since day one, so in a way, for a group of adventurous musicians to name itself Saros, as it strives to achieve an equally impeccable balance between various, though seemingly incongruent forms of music, seems appropriate.
Hailing from the Bay Area, home of some of the most fascinating metal bands in the United States today (Neurosis, Ludicra, Hammers of Misfortune, Asunder, Slough Feg, to name but a few), Saros boasts an especially impressive pedigree, as vocalist/guitarist Leila Abdul-Rauf also belongs to the cutting-edge neoclassical-collective Amber Asylum and drummer Blood Eagle is a former member of the highly influential underground black metal band Weakling. This alone qualifies as enough to perk a few hip ears up, but add the fact the band landed noted-producer Billy Anderson (Neurosis, Eyehategod, Sleep) to helm its debut full-length for Profound Lore, easily the most important avant-garde metal label right now, and you have instant cause for genuine excitement. As it turns out, any buzz Acrid Plains generates comes completely warranted, a remarkably mature-sounding record equal parts black metal, progressive rock and 1990s shoegaze.
With a sound as clean and dry as its title would indicate, what much of this record will remind many metal fans of is Enslaved’s superb album, Vertebrae, from last year. Starting off with an intro so indebted to Pink Floyd we immediately have visions of tracking shots behind walls of amps under the scorching Pompeii sun, the excellent title track quickly launches into a surprisingly restrained groove. The song’s simultaneous black metal/prog homages aren’t so much disparate as complementary: The guitars’ tones befit a black metal band, but the riffs and melodies prove considerably more expansive, and Abdul-Rauf delivers his vocals in a decidedly icy snarl, which get offset by the surprisingly flamboyant solos of lead guitarist Ben Aguilar. Conversely, Abdul-Rauf employs haunting, clean- vocal melodies atop the swirling tremolo picking heard on the majestic, epic aggression of “Coriolis”.
Incorporating the dreamy melodies and dense sounds of shoegaze is a popular trend among many “post-metal”-inclined bands these days, but the tasteful way this foursome uses that style, confidently performed yet never overused, sets this record apart from many other like-minded acts. Abdul-Rauf’s layered vocal melodies during the ambitious “As the Tyrant Falls Ill” resemble the dreamy tones of UK greats Lush, and along with some well-timed acoustic guitar passages, brilliantly offset the heavier, Ludicra-esque sections of the eight and a half minute song. “As the Tyrant Falls Ill (reprise)” builds on the original song’s pensive coda, underscored magnificently by Amber Asylum leader Kris Force on violin and cello, Abdul-Rauf’s tender yet incomprehensible singing falling beautifully between Lush’s Miki Berenyi and Cocteau Twins’ Elizabeth Fraser, while similar vocalizing is juxtaposed against a far heavier backdrop on the haunting, dynamic “Reversion”, arguably the album’s most revelatory moment.
Comprised of seven tracks over 52 minutes, Acrid Plains might seem tedious on paper, but the band never meanders, and nowhere does this become more evident than on the 12-and-a-half-minute closer “The Sky Will End Soon”, which shifts beautifully from folk-influenced metal reminiscent of Agalloch to expressive solos by Aguilar and more of those sumptuous vocals by Abdul-Rauf. It’s a perfect way to cap off an album not only brave enough to look beyond the confines of both black metal and prog but always seems smart enough to resist overplaying its hand. We can only hope it doesn’t take this Saros 6,585 days to produce a follow-up.
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