Another strong entry in the band's catalog
The last album by Denver quartet Dreadnought- 2017's A Wake In Sacred Waves- was one of my top albums of that year, because of and simultaneously in spite of the almost overwhelmingly ambitious progressive/ doom/ black metal hybrid offering it represented. As you might recall from my review of that album, any reservations I had about it were not so much due to the band's ambitious attempt to fuse those styles, but because of the sheer quantities of it being served up. (Four tracks, none under ten minutes in length, the opener a staggering seventeen.) From a brief conversation with vocalist/ guitarist/ flautist Kelly Schilling at the Boston stop of that album's tour cycle, I got the impression that the band had already been taking that into consideration as they prepared material for what became Emergence. And from my first listen to this album, it's clear that the creatively ambitious Coloradans have indeed eased off on the insane levels of musical ambition displayed last time, while not really losing any of what made A Wake... so impressive.
The album's opening track, "Besieged" (which was unveiled to audiences on the last tour) picks up right where A Wake In Sacred Waves left off musically, getting things going in a manner that will now feel familiar and even comfortable to those who enjoyed that album. It's also a more concise and to the point way to kick off the album, fitting in much of the type of classy progressive song structure present in the last album's songwriting into a much shorter temporal space (a mere 6:48!). As if to take further precaution against overwhelming the listener, the band then follows up with a quiet, atmospheric transitional mood piece that doesn't even come near the four minute marker. (Note: these statistics are things I didn't even notice until I sat down to write this review and made note of the track times.) A fan hoping for a full-on repeat of the last album or anything resembling it may actually start to become slightly worried at this point.
Ah, but so far, Dreadnought have tricked us! If you had any thoughts that the band's intrest in progressive, exploratory song structures had waned to any siginificant degree, you can forget those thoughts starting with the album's second proper song, "Pestilent." In fact, Emergence is far closer to the last album's nature than one would have thought at first, despite having a theme that- on the surface, at least- appears to be the polar opposite of A Wake... As noted in my review the last time around, each Dreadnought album so far has revolved around a different element, thematically (water last time, fire on this one). And with the short, sharp attack of the aforementioned "Besieged," the musical feel does indeed seem to reinforce that thematic shift. But on a musical (and apparently, lyrical) level, it seems Dreadnought are taking a view that fire is more than just a fierce, unforgiving polar opposite of cool, languid water.
As is noted in the album's press materials, the theme of Emergence presents the role of fire as not merely a destructive force, but a cleansing one that paves the way for new life. So it seems that the opening track represents the life-extinguishing blaze we tend to associate with fire, while the aforementioned mood piece that follows it ("Still") represents the aftermath, in which the life lost is mourned. But from there on, again, we're in much more familiar Dreadnought territory, representing the struggle to recover from the tragedy that has transpired. And this, it seems, is where the trademark sound the band has developed comes in, fitting much more naturally with the album's theme than perhaps it would have seemed at first. (The more tranquil aspects of the band's sound would have seemed somewhat out of place had the theme of fire-sparked destruction engulfed- no pun intended- the entire album.) Having all this thematic knowledge of the album isn't essential to enjoying the album, but everything about it definitely makes more sense when considered in this light.
This also brings us to the one lingering problem that remains on this album- though to a lesser degree than last time: the seemingly endless array of progressive extreme metal elements constantly vying for our attention. These elements, it seems, are also frequently presented in a way that is familiar- almost too familiar by now- to anyone familiar with their last couple of albums. This is best exemplified by the aforementioned "Pestilent" and "Tempered," which contains perhaps the closest things to "traditional" metal riffs the band has ever produced, but then shifts back towards the sprawling, multifacteted song style that has become part of the band's trademark. This isn't a bad thing at all in itself, but there are times where it begins to feel like a formula- particularly with respect to those bouncy, midpaced triplet grooves that the band seems to have become fond of utilizing- simply because these specific elements almost always seem to be there. However, the band shakes things up a bit in this regard on album closer "The Waking Realm," which finds them utilizing sonic space and ambience in a way they have flirted with in the past but never taken as far as they do this time. And it works particularly well here, because the production values of the band's recordings just seem to keep getting better, with Andy Patterson of Subrosa fame once again providing a clear, thoroughly balanced sound and making sure that the numerous subtleties of the band's music come through like they need to. This is especially commendable given the seemless blending of metal and traditionally non-metal elements the band is attempting. It's always cool to hear how Schilling's flute and drummer Jordan Clancy's frequent jazz touches fit into the sonic picture. But the aforementioned "The Waking Realm" builds and flows nicely throughout its almost fourteen minute timespan, coalescing into a pleasent bit of ambient chaos at its end.
Not sure what will happen next with Dreadnought, but Emergence feels like both a companion piece to A Wake In Sacred Waves and potentially a bridge to something else. On one level, it feels like A Wake... Part 2, but the type of sequel that takes care to move away from being a clone of its predecessor. At this point, I feel that the band is at an important juncture in its evolution, meaning that they can either continue comfortably making music that follows the pattern established on these two records or begin breaking away towards something different. Personally, I think the time for the latter is coming, and that the band's sound is ready for a bit of tweaking, experimentation or some sort of infusion of ideas not explored on their albums so far. In the meantime, however, Emergence stands as another strong entry in the band's catalog, with the band essentially fine-tuning the sound developed on the previous two albums. Their core sonic identity is thoroughly established and their grasp of their craft clearly proven by now. But as stunningly well-crafted as their work so far has been, I have had this lingering feeling for awhile that they are capable of more, and that they haven't yet quite managed to produce the sort of masterpiece I feel they are capable of. At this point, all of the elements for such a masterpiece are in place. What the band needs to do is figure out how to make use of them in a way that resonates with the listener on a deeper level than they've managed to achieve so far. Once they do, they'll pretty much be without peer. For now, they're not quite there, but they've accomplished something thoroughly worthy of respect.