Converge, Rivers of Hell (a ménage à trois)

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Heavy metal is no stranger to vanity projects. For every hard-working upstart band toiling in obscurity, there’s an unnecessary side project for already-visible cats to lick themselves to an even silkier sheen. (Sorry to bring the reality-check pain, but good as they are, I’m waggling a miserly stink-eye at you, Hail of Bullets.) It’s pretty easy to argue that there’s never been a better time to be a fan of this genre, so shouldn’t we want to shine a spotlight on the few untrammeled explorers of the truly new instead of the microwaved leftovers of the familiar?

Well, that sounds perfectly noble and proper in theory, but godDAMN if some folks don’t just know how to work a sound.

That’s why you should ease up on your reflexive bullshit detector when I tell you about the upcoming three-way “split” album Converge, Rivers of Hell. The scare-quotes around “split” are intentionally snarky, because all three of the “bands” featured on Converge, Rivers of HellThe Crevices Below, Tempestuous Fall, and Midnight Odyssey — are solo projects of the same person, an Australian who goes by the name Dis Pater.

Still with me? Good, because here’s why this is worth your time: It succeeds mightily in the face of many potential pitfalls. The very idea of putting out a three-way split album with yourself is bold, because it risks revealing the redundancy of each project. Imagine it: One dude plays black metal, but isn’t satisfied with it, so he starts not just one, but two separate side projects to explore (marginally) different versions of the style. On top of that, this is a concept album, with each song named after one of the classical rivers of Hell, so the whole endeavor runs the risk of being far too clever and tidy.

Despite these odds, the cleverness and symmetry (each project gets two songs, and each “side” of the album features the three bands in the same sequence) is thematically warranted, and the whole album is uniformly lush enough that it’s not a stretch to hear it as all descended from a single mind’s vision. Most important, however, is that Dis Pater retains a partially unique identity across all three of these projects, which is a skill worth both highlighting and celebrating.

The Crevices Below play an all-around classy variant of symphonic black metal that brings the drama but sidesteps most of the cheese, perhaps in the mode of mid-period Lunar Aurora, or early Limbonic Art. Midnight Odyssey’s tracks are cut from generally similar cloth, but the style and effect is closer to a humming, ambient black metal. Tempestuous Fall is the most divergent case here, pulling its basic tricks from the funeral doom playbook of Thergothon, but giving that snail’s pace style a black sheen and bumming a bit of the glacial melancholy of Katatonia’s earliest mopery. This is among the most ambulatory funeral doom you’re likely to hear, though, and Pater’s guitar work is clearly derived from black metal tropes.

The most crucial trick here is that Dis Pater has an embarrassing wealth of vocal techniques to delineate these projects from one another. The basic result is that if you zone out, you’re unlikely to be jarred by transitioning between songs, but if you’re listening intently, there’s more than enough variation to make it an interesting exercise in genre parsing, but more importantly, an immersive trip through darkly beautiful Stygian murk.

Ultimately, what Converge, Rivers of Hell suggests is that none of these projects are actually side projects of anything else; the real subject here is some primordial core of musical expression that this one antipodean miscreant has stumbled across. Think of these radiant sadnesses as successive solar flares from a dying star, and succor yourself with the knowledge that the void looms for all equally.

Converge, Rivers of Hell is out now on I, Voidhanger.

— Dan Lawrence

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