A Wake In Sacred Waves
Clearly aiming high from an artistic standpoint
This Denver quartet has begun to gain the attention of listeners seeking fresh, challenging forms of metal. Wielding a somewhat unwieldy combination of long, dynamically varied compositions, smart riffing, flute, saxophone and vocals that alternate between clean crooning and a black metal-ish rasp, Dreadnought have brought a creative ambition to extreme metal that reminds me of Opeth's early contributions to the genre. Creatively speaking, Dreadnought --guitarist/vocalist/flutist Kelly Schilling, keyboardist/vocalist Lauren Viera, bassist/mandolinist Kevin Handlon and drummer/saxophonist Jordan Clancy-- started off right in the deep end on their 2013 debut album "Lifewoven," and refined their combination of doom, black and prog influences into a more coherent blend on 2015's "Bridging Realms." On their third release, the ambitious nature of the band's music shows no signs of waning. The fact that the album contains only four tracks but lasts the better part of an hour might be your first clue to that.
And while I hesitate to dwell on this comparison too much for fear of minimizing the band's uniqueness, this album finds another parallel with early Opeth developing. Opeth's third album, "My Arms, Your Hearse," found the Swedish metallers opting for a slight increase in aggression and heaviness, and a partial netting out of the stylistic diversity and constant dynamic shifts that characterized their first two albums. And on their third album, we now find Dreadnought doing similar things with their sound. While the proggy and even jazzy touches that graced their first two albums can still be found here, there seems to be an increased emphasis on the harsher elements of the band's sound this time around: more jagged, slashing riffs and more use of the black metally side of Schilling's vocal persona. But with such long, winding song structures (particularly the seventeen minute opener "Vacant Sea"), there's still plenty of room for bouncing back and fourth between extreme metal ferocity and elegant flute or piano melodies. And bounce they often do- between various dynamic levels, moods and instrument tones. Schilling notes in the album's press material that the theme of each Dreadnought album so far has been loosely based around an element: earth (on "Lifewoven"), ether ("Bridging Realms") and now water. "A Wake In Sacred Waves," according to Schilling, tells the tale of an underwater creature that "evolves into an apex predator, takes over everything, and then falls from grace," mirroring the existential struggles of humans. The increased heaviness, she says, is a reflection of more difficult times the band members had been going through during the album's conception. Whether or not you'll be able to follow the story as the album unfolds is another matter, but it's hardly even an issue when one has so much else to take in.
That brings us to what I find both stunning and sometimes slightly off-putting about this album: there is literally so much to take in that it actually becomes difficult to even keep track of how much of it has truly contributed to the album's splendor, rather than just taking up space. And when every song eclipses the ten minute mark and features several distinct sections, it's easy for critics to level charges of filler. Personally, I'm in awe of the musical package overall, but wondering if some sections might have drifted on a tad longer than necessary- though I couldn't even tell you which ones, despite listening to this album more times than most others I've reviewed lately. (One personal opinion: not a fan of the harsh vocals- and Schilling's are indeed fierce when she ventures into that territory. But the more tranquil moments are always enjoyable, even when they seem to meander a bit.) And that's part of the push-pull feeling one can get: it's possible- quite possible- to listen to this album many times and still not be quite sure what to make of it all, something arguably true of much of the world's truly great art.
By just about any measure, Dreadnought are clearly aiming high from an artistic standpoint. And when a band puts as much effort as they clearly have into crafting something that goes well above the requirements of their genre, the results are likely to be stunning on a surface level, even if what lies beyond feels somewhat impenetrable and distant. That's kind of what it feels like here: something remarkable has just been experienced, but what it is I am not quite sure. My hope for the band's future work is that they can make it connect with the listener more, without compromising what they hope to create and convey. It's something many of the greats learn over time, so I definitely wouldn't consider it out of the realm of possibility for these four. And that, I believe, is when they will really shine.