Ethereal Shroud - They Became the Falling Ash - Reviews (2024)

The 21st century is a hell of a time for music. People have access to training in both playing and recording techniques that are far less costly (free, in the case of countless YouTube tutorial videos) than in times past. Digital distribution has become the norm rather than a novel convenience for bands with budgets too small to afford self-releasing albums. To top it all off, people are able to record studio-quality stuff on their own in tiny bedrooms. Other than vocals, it's possible to do this stuff in total silence. Guitar amp simulation software is getting better all the time, as are programmed drums. Naturally, the increased accessibility of making music has been something of a blessing and a curse, as the natural filter of needing money and dedication to even release music in times past has been lifted, the barrier to entry much lower, meaning that some really boring, sloppy crap is getting released in deceptively professional looking (and sometimes, sounding) packaging, but it also means that some lonely guys in remote backwaters are able to record and release their opuses without needing to find dudes in their local area willing and able to participate and without needing to spend the time and money it takes to record in a studio. The number of releases I hear that probably would not have been possible if it weren't for the advances in inexpensive, high quality music production goes up and up each and every year.

Ethereal Shroud are just such a band. Recording from probably some bedroom in the presumably terrifying, barrow-lined hills of the Isle of Wight(s), the solitary individual behind this project, Joe Hawker, crafts massive, sprawling black metal epics that are every bit as ethereal as you would guess based on the project's name. The music on display here is synth-heavy stuff that recalls Aussie acts like Midnight Odyssey or even Elysian Blaze as well as Spectral Lore, Lustre, Vemod as well as spacey stuff like Alrakis, Finster or Astral Silence. Though the songs are long, minimalism is the name of the game. Drum machines pound steady, simple beats way off in the distance, the cymbals a barely-audible wash of sound and only the snare (and rarer toms) being really sonically tangible. The rest of the soundscape is an opaque blending of ultra-saturated tremolo guitar with swollen blends of distorted and crystal-clear synth patches. Where the guitars end and the synths begin is kind of irrelevant as it's all just one big, dense, tonal cloud.

Hawker does a commendable job of building this atmosphere in the instrumentation. Melodies move like galactic glaciers, notes in one synth or the guitars slowly pushing into the next bit of stellar melodrama while the rest of the instrumentation drones on. Every time the chords or melodies shift ever so slightly, at least some part of the guitars or synths continues playing the same note. This pedal point effect, paired with the beauty of the guitar/synth textures, results in some really satisfying and hypnotic drone-heavy chord progressions. Perhaps my favorite example of this formula working just write is the midsection of "Desperation Hymn," during which the vocals drop out long enough to let the instrumentals shine.

There are two things that really hold this album back from being one of the more standout releases in this particular niche of ambient black metal. For one, the competently-performed vocals are mixed horribly. They have a neutron star's worth of reverb wrapped around them, which is of course pretty standard in music like this, but the difficulty in applying so much reverb is that it tends to make the low end really boomy, so care should be taken to use reverb and EQ together to prevent ill effects. It doesn't sound like this was done at all on the vocals on They Became the Falling Ash, so whenever the vocals pop up they just sort of wash out the entire mix, rendering everything but the drums into an indistinct blur. I'd really love to hear a remix of the album that fixes this issue as my enjoyment of the music is severely hampered by the way the vocals crowd out everything else. Fortunately they're fairly sparse, but it's still a major issue.

Secondly, though of course minimalism is the name of the game here, I wouldn't at all have minded a bit more layering and complexity in the instrumentation. Naturally my brain wanders back to Lustre, a band who, at their best, used similarly dense sheets of heavily-distorted simple guitar coupled with clouds of pretty synths to make huge textures, but then iced the cake by tossing those synth glockenspiel leads over the top to give the listener something slightly more concrete and structured to listen to during the hypnotic repetitions of the droning chords. Not that I think Ethereal Shroud should copy Lustre in exactly the same way, of course, but Hawker could stand to add something else that really stands out from the mix, instrumentally, to serve as a focal point during extended wordless sections. There are some standout lead moments (there's a great one at about 10:45 into 25-minute closer "Echoes in the Snow") but more liberal use of stuff like this would've been a major boon.

Fans of this sort of spacey, synth-heavy black/funeral doom type stuff will likely eat this up, but those with a bit of quality control filters on their listening will recognize that this is merely good and makes a few important missteps that prevent it from really being able to compete with the best stuff in the subgenre. Perhaps future releases will be stronger.

Ethereal Shroud - They Became the Falling Ash - Reviews (2024)
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