Darkher is neither metal nor folk, post-rock, or gothic. It's a single cohesive vision, dark music with shading and light.
Darkher is a project led by singer and guitarist Jayn H. Wissenberg, and Realms arrives on an enigmatic note. For starters, it's her first full-length album, and it's unusual for an artist to sound as in command and assured of her talent at such a juncture. Darkher also has had a curious provenance: signed to Prophecy along with underground metal bands, touring and sharing members with groups like Subrosa and My Dying Bride, and exhibiting in her presentation an appreciation for the ethos of metal -- its music, imagery, and the habits of its practitioners. But Darkher is not a metal band, nor a folk, post-rock, or gothic rock band. These and other traditions become means to an end, tastefully embodied in a cohesive statement. Realms is dark music with shading and light.
It will be easy for critics and listeners to point to Chelsea Wolfe as an influence on Darkher, to situate her in dark passages of a long post-rock tradition, to Swans with and without Jarboe, to the dark folk of Current 93 or Sol Invictus, or to the post-metal and drone metal of the 2000s. There is some truth to all of that, but it's not true enough to characterize what distinguishes Darkher's approach. In Darkher, there is an old-fashioned and almost classical approach to composition and arrangement. Rather than utilizing strictly verse-chorus-verse structures, repetition, or more experimental formats, much of Darkher's music establishes a core melodic idea or theme and then builds a song around it that shifts slowly and gracefully through three or four sections, arranged logically with emotional sense and purpose. "Moth", "Wars", and "Lament" all have such an impact, in part because they are dynamic songs that drift and push through tension to release, from darkness into light.
This does not exhaust Wissenberg's versatility in composition and performance. Unlike most of the songs on Realms, "The Dawn Brings a Saviour" and "Foregone" follow relatively straight paths. The former is close to an unaccompanied and straightforward folk song, sorrowful and haunted, more Marissa Nadler than Laura Marling. The latter sounds like Faith-era The Cure, voice and instruments steeped in reverb, the rhythm gradually intensifying over the course of its seven-and-a-half-minute runtime, until it feels like Children of God-era Swans. Then it drifts into silence.
Some of the material is less engaging. "Hollowed Veil" and "Buried, Pt. II" depart from both the baroque suite-like mode, as well as the more direct mode. This third mode seems inspired by the mid-period Neurosis style, where dissonance and repetition are the tools for emotional transcendence. But Wissenberg has other instruments -- all of her songs are linked by her voice, whether smoky or soprano, authoritative or vulnerable, and she deploys it like a virtuoso. Her best songs are linked by her use of rich, tonal melodies, and although she puts them to work throughout Realms, and they are least developed in these two songs.
One welcome legacy of black metal is the sense of time and place that the artists often imbue the music and imagery. Enslaved, Drudkh, and Panopticon, for example, allow for the history and culture of Norway, Ukraine, and Appalachia, respectively, to flourish in various ways in the music and presentations. A similar approach seems evident in Wissenberg, a native of Yorkshire, England. The cover of Realms depicts a solitary windswept figure in black on a grassy moor with grey skies, the image framed in such a way to suggest a gradual transposition into fog. It captures both the beauty and desolation evoked by the moors of northern England and points the way toward Wissenberg's own musical creativity, which has undoubtedly been shaped and inspired by it.