I was going to start this review off with some sort of half-clever quip about how there must something in New York City’s water supply that makes it such fertile ground for riff-centric black metal bands. Then I started thinking about exactly which bodies of water I’d be talking about, which led to me Googling a few things and being reminded of Blinky the three-eyed fish from that old Simpsons episode…
So let’s kick things off with a bad Seinfeld impression instead:
So what’s the deal with all these riffy black metal bands popping up in New York City? Have you noticed this? Any time you hear a USBM song with a bunch of gnarly riffs, it’s like “Oh. I’ll bet they’re from NYC. And they’re probably somehow connected to Chris Grigg.” And you’re almost always right.
In the case of Belus, though, it’s all pretty much accurate:
NYC-based? Check. Brooklyn, represent.
Gnarly riffs? Waaaaay too many to count.
Connection to Chris Grigg? Guitarist/vocalist Matt Mewton joined Woe in 2016 and played on their stellar new album Hope Attrition.
However, Belus is actually a very different sort of animal than any of their NYC brethren. On Apophenia, their long-awaited debut full-length, the trio takes a huge leap forward from the blackened doom of their earlier demos and 2014 split with Anicon and end up landing in far more progressive territory instead, with some pretty exhilarating results. The seven songs that comprise Apophenia feature knotty structures and unexpected compositional twists galore, but with a relatively compact 45-minute run time, it’s also a remarkably accessible album.
Now…before anyone gets bent out of shape at my calling it ‘accessible,’ let me unpack that a bit. There are basically two types of progressive black metal: the kind that you listen to, marvel at its innovation and/or technicality, and then never listen to again (for me at least, Mastery and Horseback fall into this category), and then there are those that deftly manage to keep listeners guessing and engaged in equal measure. Belus fall squarely into the second camp, making music that sounds as prismatic as the art that adorns the cover, and that refracts just as vibrantly.
Part of what makes Apophenia such a compelling listen is the way that no two songs on the record really sound alike, but from a compositional standpoint everything still feels of a piece. Much of the credit for that goes to drummer Jacques Johnson, who anchors everything with his unconventional but remarkably fluid rhythmic approach. I don’t know if he has formal jazz training or what, but he seldom plays what one would expect, whether that be the post-punk sections in “Monolith,” the tribal-leaning middle section of “Illusions,” or even his blasts, which sound more like he’s playing triplets on the snare than staying in simple 4/4 time.
That fluidity on the part of Johnson provides the perfect complement for Mewton’s chameleonic riffing, which ranges from borderline mathcore complexity to straightforward second wave aggression on virtually every track on the record, with at least a nod to at least half a dozen other subgenres of extreme metal in between. Pick any track on the record and there will be at least three massive riffs, all drawing inspiration from different places on the metal spectrum. Highlights include the almost modal-sounding intro riff to album opener “Chasm,” the off-kilter, arpeggio-driven sections in “Avarice,” and any of the moody, doom-inflected passages “Omens.”
If I have one complaint about the record, though, it’s the mix. The drum sound is dry and very natural, and they seem to wisely be bumped a little higher in the mix than is the norm. The guitar tones are just dirty enough to have a nice bite to them, but not so saturated that the complexity of the riffs gets list in the buzz. Bassist Lesley Wolf, though, seems to get lost somewhere in between. There are very few places on the album where I can really pick out what the bass is doing. I suppose it could be that the bass is purely holding down the rhythm to allow Johnson more room to experiment on the drums. However, given the complex character of the rest of what’s happening musically here, it would be a tad disappointing if that were the case.
Still, not having enough bass in the mix is far from a deal killer. In fact, what most people consider the last great album from a certain Bay Area thrash band is almost notorious for its bass-less mix. All told, Apophenia is an excellent debut full-length from a trio who seem to have almost limitless potential. Fans of bands like Krallice or Cormorant would do well to check Belus out as well.
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