The success of Come the Thaw, the sophomore album from ethereal doom outfit Worm Ouroboros, comes down to its gravity. Specifically, its emotional weight, that which presses heavily upon your heart. The San Francisco-based trio has always favored expressive suites that delicately balance vulnerability and resilience, shadow and luminosity. But on its latest album, the band has stripped its songs back to brittle forms. Come the Thaw‘s sparseness is built around a hauntingly picturesque and stark armature, with its finest attribute being its intimate fragility. Where the gossamer-thin tendrils of its otherworldly reveries gently cradle its plaintive mass.
Come the Thaw represents a shift in direction for Worm Ouroboros. The band’s majestic and much celebrated self-titled 2009 debut harnessed the same sense of delicate poignancy, but was a far heavier and more metallic affair. Doom, rough-edged progressive sludge, and the unmistakable pulse of ambient and post-punk laments, all featured heavily in the overall sound.
The new album is similarly mournful in disposition, and set to a requiem pace. But where in the past the band would have shaken off that downheartedness with a weightier gelid riff, or worked up to a rousing crescendo or two, here the more overtly metal elements have all but disappeared. Leaving an album that is still foreboding and mellifluous, but that concentrates more on graceful execution — with the intoxicating vocals of Jessica Way and Lorraine Rath playing the key role.
A notable change, undoubtedly, but hardly an unforeseen one. It would be difficult to conceive that genuine fans would have any problem with the decision to concentrate on more subdued endeavors. Worm Ouroboros’s allure has always been linked to its wish to explore emotionally delicate states, and the band’s appreciated as much for its melancholic drift as its rowdiness.
Comparisons have been made to the work of hazy dream-pop artists such as Cocteau Twins and Dead Can Dance. This seems fair, especially given the glacial bass lines, shimmering vocals and phantasmagorical substance that make up opening track “Ruined Ground”. But “Further Out”, with its sweeping, silky harmonies, has the searching spirit of cosmic neo-folk (nestling up to the pastoral drone of Earth). While “Penumbra” floats atop an exquisite, incorporeal threnody — revealing a temperament more akin to chamber doom than any 4AD ’80s wistfulness.
There is, of course, evidence of the artists that inspired Worm Ouroboros. But it’s the combination of those influences that ensures the band’s work is wholly distinctive. Their underlying metal pedigree is still visible, helped enormously by the work of Agalloch and ex-Ludicra drummer Aesop Dekker. His percussion provides both a framework and substrata for Rath’s lustrous bass and Way’s diaphanous guitar work. His carefully paced jazzy fills add vitality and clout to the heftier sections of “Withered”, and welcome scaffolding and texture throughout the entire album.
Gorgeous vocals aside, Rath and Wray are no slouches in the instrumental department either. The interweaving of mercurial guitar and rumbling bass on “When We Are Gold” makes for a wonderfully despondent but ultimately uplifting track. As it shifts from the downhearted to euphoric and back again, the rousing swells of distorting riffs and glorious soloing remind you that while the album is skeletal, there’s still plenty of meat on them bones. The entire album is infused with an introspective ambience, evoking pensive atmospheres throughout. But the choice of where and when to add a fleck of color has been expertly judged, with the band lighting the occasional candle to briefly illuminate landscapes of hope.
Ultimately, the virtues of an album like Come the Thaw are best expressed by emphasizing its overwhelming emotive substance. All the players are clearly aligned in their vision, and the great emotionality Rath, Wray and Dekker convey is never less than stunning. Come the Thaw might be light on instrumentation, but it is heavy nonetheless, with every note and entwining vocal line bolstering its serenity and beautiful frailty. If Come the Thaw is an indication of Worm Ouroboros’s chosen trail from now on, then long may the band reign as monarch of elegant melancholy.