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Album Review: Ashenspire – Speak Not of the Laudanum Quandary

Since I started doing more of the album reviews here at the Vault, I’ve been getting more new music in my inbox every week than I can possibly listen to, much less review. As a result, unless an album is from a band or a genre I’m already partial to, it’s going to have to grab me right away or I’m probably not going to spend much time with it.

The exception to this is bands with violin players. I unabashedly love Martin Powell-era My Dying Bride (pretty much all My Dying Bride, really), and I will always find time to listen to a full album from pretty much any band with a violin player. Which is how Speak Not of the Laudanum Quandary, the forthcoming debut full-length from Glaswegian avant-garde black metal outfit Ashenspire, has ended up in my heavy rotation file the last couple of weeks.

Actually, that’s only a half-true statement. I would have given the album a listen because its title reminds me of Thomas De Quincey’s 1832 memoir Confessions of an English Opium-Eater (yes – I do have English degrees), which isn’t a very frequent point of reference for anything, much less a metal band. The violin is what kept me listening after the initial shock of the vocals nearly made me turn it off. Ashenspire frontman and ‘creative director’ Alasdair Dunn favors a sprechgesang style, which is a highly dramatic vocalization that’s somewhere between singing and shouting. At times, he sounds like a cross between My Dying Bride’s Aaron Stainthorpe at his most gothically melodramatic and a deranged fire-and-brimstone televangelist. In other words, it takes a little getting used to, but the style does mesh very well with the type of music the band plays and the loose narrative framework of the record, which has to do with the excesses and atrocities of British Imperialism. I do occasionally find myself wishing, though, he’d varied his approach a bit more often, if only to give the listener a better sense of the characters being described in the songs.

Musically, the album is definitely more avant-garde than it is black metal, which would make sense for a band that lists Dødheimsgard as an influence. In fact, more than anything they remind me of progressive metallers Ne Obliviscaris, particularly in the way that the violin is used to carry the melody in a lot of the songs. There’s also more than a little My Dying Bride in the way they incorporate piano into several of the songs. For the most part, the music acts as the scenery and tableau for Dunn’s vocal performance – it’s well-arranged and skillfully performed, giving the album as a whole the air of a Victorian drama. That’s not to say that there aren’t standout moments, though; the clean guitar and piano in the opening section of “Grievous Bodily Harmonies” are absolutely lovely, and the taut riffing of “The Wretched Mills” adds to the overall dramatic tension of the piece.

Even though Ashenspire is working with familiar elements on Speak Not of the Laudanum Quandary, the end result is really unlike anything I’ve heard before, to the point where listening to the album is almost a synesthetic experience – through the music, I can practically feel the chill of an evening fog on my skin or smell the fetid air of the dens of ill-repute. I really hope the band tours the US – I would love to see how music this theatrical translates live.

Speak Not of the Laudanum Quandary will be available both digitally and on CD on January 20 via Aural Music.

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