Bless This (Sometimes Brilliant) Mess
Blessed Be My Brothers begins with “Komeno,” a guitar-led overture that says much and little all at once. English metal band Sarpanitum’s sound is trebly, spacious and relatively unprocessed – hinting at the lo-fi grandiosity found in many strains of black metal, especially with those generic-but-germane choral synthesizers hovering in the background. Yet, somehow, “Komeno” feels like a setup, the prelude to some absurd switchup into bludgeoning death or pulverizing grind. “By Virtuous Reclamation” is indeed different, and reveals Sarpanitum’s “song sound,” but oddly, does little to resolve things. What one must eventually realize is that Sarpanitum are a band with a slippery, confusing modus operandi. This is not to say that they are necessarily avant-garde or experimental, just that what they are doing on Blessed Be My Brothers exists in some barely-charted territory between metal subgenres. The results are as maddening as they are thrilling, with a kind of bizarre and inexplicably beauteous joy seeking to spread its mighty wings, but failing each time to catch the right winds, and being buffeted instead by frustrating gusts of unfocused songwriting. There is undoubtedly a lot of cool stuff going on here. For example, when vocalist and multi-instrumentalist Tom Innocenti’s utterances first appear on “By Virtuous Reclamation,” they are just plain guttural. Innocenti’s sullen death grumble cuts hard against the scratchy, trebly, sometimes soaring guitars. This juxtaposition is generally pleasing. There are other contrasts, like that between Sarpanitum’s death metal stomps and high-flying, almost comically outsized 80’s-style guitar leads. Sarpanitum are also skilled at building tremendous crescendos, employing blends of lightning-fast double-bass or blastbeats, fleet-fingered twanging, commanding intonations and mix-embiggening synths to paint epic pictures of metal majesty.
And compared to the generic, low-register chug-n-destroy of 2007 full-length Despoilment of Origin, Blessed Be My Brothers is wildly unpredictable and hugely ambitious. There is also a deliberate looseness at work in the new regime. The guitars ramble and sometimes seem to hold notes a half-beat too long. The drumming is preternaturally fast, but still has a naturalistic sound. The recording style is spacious, not terribly loud, and refreshingly, a little uneven. This imprecision serves Brothers well, deflating the po-facedness of the death metal sections and allowing the more rambunctious passages to splash around with the wildness they deserve.
However, the swerves that abound on Blessed Be My Brothers could very well be the album’s undoing. The guitars are all over the place, layered and careening across subgenres in a way that can be thrilling, but also confusing and exasperating. There are many very hard transitions, which often feel like doors locking shut behind the listener. For example, the left turn a little more than two minutes into “Malek Al-Inkitar” is energizing in its sheer jarring effect. Elsewhere however, “Thy Sermon Lies Forever Tarnished” abandons its beautifully discordant initial chord progression to cycle through what feels like a dozen less-satisfying parts. There’s no question that Sarpanitum’s moments of synchronicity are breathtaking, but on Brothers, the band flit around with such caprice that these moments are often lost, like dreams dissolving quietly into the entropy of forgetfulness.
Since Despoilment of Origin, Sarpanitum have changed their lineup and acquired a whole new set of colors. Blessed Be My Brothers feels like a painting with interesting elements arrayed about the canvas, but no unified cues to lead the eye rhythmically about the complete work. The songs here are often thrilling in their freewheeling abandon and spontaneity, but it’s hard to say that any of them are constructed in a way that maximizes listening pleasure or emotional payoff; one can puzzle over their arrangements and search for the key to understanding, but that key might not even exist. Blessed Be My Brothers is exciting as a herald of future works, but standing on its own, its energy is too scattered to deliver the kind of masterstroke that Sarpanitum seem capable of making.