Delusions and Grandeur: A Review of So Hideous‘s Laurestine

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This is not a conventional metal album, so we’re going to try to do things a little differently with this review.

So Hideous has never been shy about straying from the beaten path. To hear founder Brandon Cruz tell it, the band has never sought to fit in to the black metal subgenre proper, and the art of So Hideous is more influenced by Ennio Moricone and Beethoven than Mayhem or Dissection. This is evident in the approach the band employs when writing new albums. The process begins with Cruz writing melodies on a keyboard. From there, he adds synths and orchestra. The metal elements, those with which readers of this blog will likely identify most, come last, the finishing touches to an already elaborate work.

For this reason, I’d like to propose something. Rather than listening to Laurestine as a metal album, I’d like to suggest that you listen to it as a film score. If you can, close your eyes and let the drama of Lauresine wash over you. Ready? Press play below.

As the lush orchestral work of “Yesteryear” unfolds in your mind’s eye like a flower in bloom,  you begin your journey through madness toward enlightenment. Those strings and the repeated note arrangements will be your guide throughout the rest of the album, acting as a golden thread linking it all together. In fact, it’s hard to miss from the very beginning that Laurestine is a concept album, one with the number 7 and its divine bearing on human existence at its core. “Yesteryear” opens with a subtle heartbeat that evokes the last seven minutes of brain activity after you’ve suddenly died. From there, a woman’s angelic voice, embodied by that sonic motif and the gentle caress of the strings at about 5:20 in the song, leads you by the hand through 7 tracks built around a rhythm of either 7/4 or 7/8. The concept is painstakingly crafted to take you through an emotional upward arc into the white, searing light, and every fiber of this album’s being serves that purpose.

To accomplish such a task, no simple orchestral samples would suffice. No, Cruz and his bandmates enlisted a local orchestral group in Brooklyn called the First Light Orchestra to record the intricate compositions, and the album is all the better for it. Every track surges and swells as the strings rise and fall, casting light into the shade and obscuring the radiance with shadow as each song needs. From the dark chiaroscuro of the cellos thrumming at the opening of “Hereafter” to the roaring bombast of the violins that introduce “Falling Cedars”, the music written for the First Light Orchestra is what grants this album its depth and power. In fact, the orchestral elements (and what sounds like a light choral touch on “Relinquish”) take center stage more often than not on this album. The string arrangements are what keep you enthralled as you undergo grief, denial, and ultimately absolution alongside the protagonist; the metal elements are just another piece of the grander puzzle, accenting the arrangements and adding a palpable gravity to the danger-fraught sonic journey.

That isn’t to say that the album isn’t heavy. Drummer Danny Moncada beats his skins with a mercilessness that evokes images of desperate mourners crying out to the void of death for mercy for those lost. In fact, if any instrument soars alongside the strings, it is Moncada’s drums. Check out the dizzying fills around 1:00 in “A Faint Whisper”; the incessant ringing of the cymbals haunts you like demons of the past rearing their ugly heads to torment your sanity one last time before you find freedom. If the percussion is any indication, the passage into that cold night is anything but gentle.

The harsh screamed vocals (more befitting the hardcore-tinged style of black metal than traditional black metal) also add a significant amount of force to the conceptual weight, but even Chris Cruz’s tortured screams are subject to the ebb and flow of the orchestral arrangement, following the melody at all points and adding a slightly rougher texture to the aching cello and violin lines. The vocals are the perfect counterpoint to the string arrangements, balancing light with shadow and pain with joy; they accentuate the compositions without ever overpowering them and act as a constant companion on the journey toward eternity, dripping with yearning and hope in equal measure.

If you come into this album looking for riffs, though, you’ll be a bit lost in the purgatorial haze. Yes, the riffs are there, but the production on this album places the buzzing guitars just below the orchestral strings so that they are often more difficult to pinpoint in any given song. One of the more prominent examples of their use is when they scythe and serrate through the sonic cloth created by the strings in “The True Pierce”. Most often, though, they too operate in service to the orchestral elements, adding another buzzing, slightly alarming hint at the rigor and triumph of the call of Laurestine.

Truthfully, the soft-spoken nature of the guitars raises my only complaint of the album. Like the conceptual protagonist in its story, Laurestine presents a band in transition, one wrapped up in all the ugliness and beauty of evolution. So Hideous find themselves currently somewhere between the more distinctly metal sound found on Last Poem/First Light and a grander, more artistic vision yet to be fully realized. The band is in a chrysalis, and I’m convinced that they’ll truly hit their stride on the next release.

But what a chrysalis it is! Ultimately, this album is a stunning work of art, a journey that will undoubtedly reward those willing to let go of their preconceptions regarding metal and simply embark into new territory. It is not a journey devoid of heartache and loss, but the shortcomings are part of what makes the album feel like an ever more arduous victory over a daunting challenge, each track progressing closer and closer to some sublime zenith where conquest is rewarded with cathartic release. Final track “A Faint Whisper” is one of the most triumphant crescendos you’ll hear all year. All the sorrow and joy of the transformation make the band’s (and the protagonist’s) journey from dark to light all the more rewarding.

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If you want to go on the journey too, you can pre-order the album on the band’s Bandcamp pageLaurestine comes out October 16 on Prosethetic Records. If you dig what you hear, give the band a like on Facebook.

(Photos VIA and VIA)

 

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