Review: Izthmi – The Arrows of Our Ways
Oh, what could have been.
Before we get into the music, let’s take a moment to appreciate the album art created by one Vojtěch “Moonroot” Doubek. It depicts an autumn forest scene awash in warm colors, the hash of canvas providing texture and added tactile pleasure. A lone humanoid form, naked, hairless, and riddled with arrows, lies on a circular plate, perhaps the remnants of a used trap; perhaps he is the main course. Two trees tower over the body, standing in silent judgment. They have found the man wanting and carried out his execution. Fellow trees loom faded in the distance after slowly departing the scene, their grisly work complete.
Unfortunately, my dear friends, I am the trees in this story and the body is Izthmi. They have come with the best of intentions and a truckload of talent. Undeniable talent. Please remember that. But by the end of this piece, my quiver will reluctantly be emptied in hopes that Izthmi will continue honing their craft and return reforged, stronger and more focused, in future efforts.
Let’s start with Izthmi’s strengths because herein lies the half-realized promise. Izthmi is capable of breathing life into the often stagnant waters of black metal through a careful blending of prog sensibilities, post-hardcore jangly and jarring passages, and filthy down-scale death metal riffing. Their technical prowess matched with an ear for beautifully evocative and genuinely touching melodies is a true achievement and, when successful, combines into stunning work.
The album’s last two proper tracks and album singles, “A Shout that Bursts through the Silence of Unmeaning” and “The Arrows of Our Ways,” embody Izthmi’s nearly limitless ceiling. Both songs traipse through the aforementioned genrescapes with alacrity, melodies flowing through each other and buttressed by frequently fluctuating yet coherent tempo changes. “A Shout…” finds its primary purpose best expressed through heavily deathened black metal riffs trading off with post-inflected trilling to create an atmosphere of longing. “ The Arrows of Our Ways” succeeds through slower, more contemplative passages with an emphasis on anguished screams that fade into painful exhaustion to squeeze out every drop of grief. These two tracks were chosen as singles for a very good reason and would whet any appetite.
Then we have the rest of the record, consisting of three more songs and three intro/interlude tracks. With that type of ratio, I’m sure you can figure out my first issue. Many bands have difficulty with intros. There seems to be an overwhelming pressure to begin a record with something other than the main course. Often, the intro is a meaningless placeholder untethered to any thematic element or some other essential building block of the album, which is what we have here. The record starts off with three minutes of light, crackling noise with spacey synths slowly working their way into the fore. The transition from intro to first track is abrupt and lacks any follow-through anywhere on the album. It’s like watching the opening scene of a movie that introduces characters and a setting that are never seen or referred to for the rest of the film. For the life of me, I have no idea why bands do this and it needs to stop.
The other two interlude tracks are equally puzzling. The first, entitled “-,“ is two minutes of what sounds like melodicized dial tone and breaks up the first two songs from the next two. After two more tracks, the final interlude, “(The Angels Are Lost),” is an unwelcome intrusion between the album’s two best tracks. Instead of moving from triumph to triumph, we hear metallic scratching behind philosophical spoken word for a minute and a half. There is no need for a palate cleanser every 14 minutes of music. The album would be much better off if the intro and interludes were excised.
Beyond my old-man gripes about intros and interludes, my main source of disappointment is with the songwriting of the non-singles. Opening and interrelated duo “To Traipse Alone…” and “…This Listless World,” as their song titles suggest, are meant to be heard together as one experience. The problem, however, is in what that experience is supposed to be. While both tracks contain interesting and sometimes lovely passages, they lack a discernible trajectory or clear narrative. Longer pieces like this cannot rely on a series of impressive parts without forming a whole. The intensity at which each passage is played feels flat and the tempo changes fail to effectively create the tension necessary to hold interest. Too many times does Izthmi introduce a mid-paced portion that hints of something more only to dissipate momentum by slowing down. The more explosive moments found in the singles just aren’t here.
Third song, [takes deep breath] “Useless Is the Song of Man, From Throats Calloused by Name,” gets closer to the mark. It starts encouragingly with one of my favorite (but brief) polyphonic melodic parts on the record, generally transitions pacing well, and has a better understanding of tension. Where it does not fully succeed is in the final two minutes, which contain some unnecessary bloat with either repeated passages or a second slowdown to finish the track. So close to a third outstanding track.
This is a tough record to rate. The musicianship is on full display, the highs are very high, and the overall genre blend feels fresh. But, as an entire album, there are a number of missteps that keep it from fulfilling its potential. I believe with a bit more consideration and patience with songwriting and album construction, they can make a great album. All the pieces are there. They just need to fit them together.
3/5 Promising Toilets Aflame
Izthmi’s The Arrows of Our Ways is out on Within the Mind Records on February 14, 2020. You can pick it up here.