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Thursday, February 1, 2018

Review: Stillborn - Nocturnals

Stillborn has been around for a while. 34 years to be exact, the band was founded in 1984 in Sweden when two musicians, Kari Hokkanen and Petter Bryneson found the guitarist they needed to start a band. His name was and is Ingemar Henning and at the time he had only been playing the guitar for a year. Off they went, but it didn’t take them long to realize they needed another guitarist. As luck would have it they met guitarist Erik Sandquist at an Einst├╝rzende Neubauten concert, and he was willing to complete the line-up. Stillborn was born. They played what is now known as gothic metal, but back in the day nobody had ever used that term. That didn’t stop them from releasing an album called Necrospirituals that, in retrospect, can be considered early gothic, complete with depressing lyrics about death, sorrow and suffering. This caused it to be set as an example for the bad influence of heavy metal in a national debate and not much later it all went downhill when Kari decided to leave the band. Being stripped from more than half of their original line-up, Petter Bryneson had left Stillborn earlier, they bravely fought on, but they were fighting a lost battle. The fans more or less turned their backs on them, not accepting Kari’s departure and the two releases that succeeded their debut never managed to generate as much interest. Stillborn seemed to be headed for a travel to the realms of the forgotten bands when in 2016 the original members came together and decided to start playing again. The result is Nocturnals, a 10-song, 47 minutes release showing clear similarities with their debut work. That makes perfect sense of course, after all that is what the fans were looking for.

Chances are you’ve never heard of Stillborn. Considering them flying under the radar for the vast majority of their existence that is not too surprising. However, giving Nocturnals a spin makes you eligible for a quick course of what they stand for music-wise. And quick it is, all you need to figure it out what you’re about to engulf yourself in is opener 1917. That song will give you plenty of clues, leaving little room for interpretation where it comes to their musical preferences, even though there’s probably over a dozen words you could use to describe it. Be it depressing, ominous or eerie, really any word describing desperation, which seems to be the key element here, will do. This of course is not uncommon among gothic oriented bands and if anything this release breathes gothic influences. From the slow-paced speed to the disaster-spelling lyrics to the seriously low tuned vocals, it’s all there. Despite all this, Nocturnals is not a ‘pure’ gothic album, the guys have peppered their music with a few off-genre features, such as some heavy riffage, a couple of grunts and a handful of influences from other genres, which definitely contribute to this album. In fact, not only do they contribute, I’d say these ‘extras’ save the entire album which in my opinion could otherwise be dangerously close to boredom. I will explain myself, but keep in mind this is NOT a boring album!

When you listen past all the non-gothic features you’ll notice there’s not much variety in speed of the songs and the basic set-up of the songs isn’t exactly inventive either. That in itself isn’t a bad thing, but combined with the somewhat monotonous, low tone quite a few of the vocal lines are sang in, it spells boredom in my book. Don’t get me wrong, Kari’s voice certainly isn’t bad, not at all even, but I would have enjoyed a bit more variety in timbre and tone at times. I am of course fully aware of the fact that this is inherent to the genre, but I simply would have wanted him to play with it a little more. Nothing to complain about the grunting by the way and his range is impressively low, stretching from deep and dark to deeper than the deepest ocean and blacker than the blackest black. Also, in Stillborn’s defense, I must admit that the type of music they play here needs way more than one spin for you to fully uncover its secrets. It grows on you. So make no mistake, this album has a lot to offer, regardless that being substantially courtesy of said genre-defying influences or not. After all, it’s the sum of all parts that makes the tunes, there is no reason to discard it because it has its flaws. It might take some getting-used to, but once you have given it the time it deserves there’s enough to enjoy. Try Oblivion Reloaded on for size, the heaviest song on the album which sounds way more oppressing, burdening than all other songs on the album, almost as if it was differently mixed. Or Maaemo with its distinct guitar work, one of the best songs of the album. And then there is the grunts in The Walking Dead, a song that will keep on singing around in the back of your head a long time after it has ended. I don’t know if it was intentional, but I cannot imagine a better way to end an album than with a chorus that will haunt you in your dreams.

Like I said, Nocturnals is an album that needs time to grow on you. It has many different angles, twists and turns, but only subtle, so you won’t notice them all right away. After giving it the initial spin I was all but impressed with it, but every next time I played it, it charmed me a bit more. The carefully dosed addition of heavier riffs, subtle influences from other genres and even grunts definitely made this more interesting for me and I’m sure now it will appeal to a wider variety of metal fans. This one surely is worth your time, just make sure you are willing to give it the time it deserves and needs.

Written by Henric van Essen

Stillborn Official Website
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