Covenant's latest is marked by the addition of a new member and a surprising focus on experimentation.
It feels a little bit like Covenant is testing its audience with its new album Modern Ruin. For all the world, it sounds like a Covenant album, but there are enough tweaks to the formula in enough different directions that it sounds like a band trying to figure out what works, what doesn't, and what direction it should move in from this point forward.
Part of this new direction can no doubt be attributed to the addition of a new member, one Daniel Myer, previously of the EBM-to-IDM-and-back-again duo Haujobb (and a whole pile of side projects). Myer brings a career's worth of turning sequencer loops into songs to the Covenant collective, and his willingness to toss atmospherics and atonal elements into the mix enhance otherwise rote Covenant workouts like "Dynamo Clock" and "Worlds Collide". It's his incorporation of lush chord progressions that sticks out most on Modern Ruin, however, as "The Beauty and the Grace" and "The Road" -- two of the most beautiful Covenant tracks to date -- both benefit from walls made of ghostly chords that may exist in the background of the beats and Eskil Simonsson's distinctive baritone, but still come to define the songs in which they appear.
Still, by no means does it seem that Myer is the driving force behind the experimentation of Modern Ruin. He is only granted a writing credit on the four tracks previously mentioned, and it is really Simonsson, the group's presumed leader and primary vocalist, driving the tracks that do things Covenant has never done before.
"Bring the Light" is the most obvious departure, and maybe that has something to do with the collaboration with Necro Facility's Oscar Holter that led to its creation. "Bring the Light" ditches the four-on-the-floor beats that Covenant typically uses as the backdrop for its creations and instead introduces something like hip-hop through an '80s synthpop filter. It's like Public Enemy doing battle with Information Society, with Dave Gahan dropping by to officiate. It's pop in a way that Covenant has never been, and yet it's still crunchy enough to not come off as complete cheese. Score one for Simonsson. Just as poppy but in a way that looks backward to Covenant's own Europa release is "Beat the Noise", a track that propels itself forward so relentlessly as to be extremely catchy and dance-ready even as its lyrics are practically an acknowledgement that nobody's listening to the lyrics anyway.
On the other side of the spectrum is the spare "Kairos", a minute-long collection of ghostly synths with Simonsson singing tenderly at the top of his range. It functions just fine as an introduction to "The Beauty and the Grace", but it's really kind of awkward taken on its own. "The Night" is another failed experiment, a track that sounds like classic Covenant until Simonsson's unrecognizably-distorted voice arrives and all but ruins the thing with its tuneless moans and groans.
Add a couple of effective, atmospheric bits of collage from Joakim Montelius as bookends, and Modern Ruin reveals itself to be a series of mostly successful variations on the Covenant approach, which leaves Covenant with few answers. Do they continue softening the sound, à la Myer's stronger tracks? Do they dive into the '80s sound that worked so well on "Bring the Light"? Floundering as they may be, it's comforting that listening to Covenant try to reach beyond its core sound happens to be this entertaining.