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“Portent,” False’s Latest Phantasm, is Furious and Fastidious Art

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Gilead’s unbroken hot streak continues with False‘s second album. The group’s debut, continuing an early string of untitled releases, presented a take on black metal that drew more from the cerebral end of the genre, with deftly picked crystalline arpeggios dancing over dense blast beats and a thickening gel of rich synthesizers. Even on their earliest material, False was attentive enough to synth tones and mixing to make sure they didn’t arrive at accidental “cheesefest” of overbearing cartoonish synth drowning out the intensity of the black metal. The instrument is more often treated as harmonic supplement to rhythm guitars, offering a gentle symphonic sweep to the work without disrupting its base intensities.

At its best, their approach to incorporating synthesizer into black metal offered an opulent gothic edge more akin to peak era The Cure than anything else, conjuring darkened dreamscapes of purples and blacks.

It is comforting then to say that on Portent, the group’s first non-untitled work, they not only continue those aspects that made their work so strong on their widely acclaimed early material and debut release but expand upon it. The songs here, for instance, are substantially girthier, the entire album being comprised of three sweeping epics and a closing outro. The tracks are masterclasses in progressive songwriting, featuring a bevy of ideas in each song to justify their runtime but a rapt attention and sensitivity to how they emotionally develop from one to the next. None of these three songs feel haphazard and neither do they feel stilted or overly constructed. Also, not only does the internal logic of each track develop competently upon themselves, unfurling like a great transcendent banner of hope and death, but the tracks likewise lead well emotionally one into the next. If Yellow Eyes has the best abstract black metal release of the year, then False triumphs on a more traditional scale, taking old tropes and refreshing them with the simple act of playing them with meaning and a keen ear for powerful melodies and strong emotional logic.

There are flecks of what might be considered power metal lingering underneath the black metal compositions. Mostly this is felt in their strength and pace, but it’s also not hard to imagine these songs with soaring clean vocals dominating power metal spaces. There is a major key break roughly three minutes into “Rime on the Song of Returning” that calls to mind a triumphant gallop across formerly broken land, like a knight surveying a field of a successful battle. All this, mind, and without a sense of cartoonish overextension. False manage to grab onto that compelling core of both power and black metal, that imagistic programmatic flourish, and elaborate on it in a vast and beautiful way. The album plays out more like a novel than an uncoordinated set of songs, a feeling intensified by the absolutely gorgeous cover, which feels as though it captures that moment of the eruptive charge. The choice of cover elaborates on the emotional content of the record well, the eye being drawn to the soft glow of the angelic form, the waving white banner, the deathly shrouded figure and the dark brooding trees in time with the emotional shifts of the record.

False are also a bit too canny to leave us with answers to the sources of emotional vexation that Portent lingers over. They seem to be aware that art is best at evocation and confrontation, making us aware as audience members of these spaces lurking and lingering within us rather than offering specific guidance as to their resolution. Their gothic and grandiose sweeping black metal is bracing. They don’t deny the outward urge of most black metal to shake a skeletal finger at the enemies of the world. But they also make sure this is balanced with a stark introspection and uncomfortable emotional honesty of the vile impulse we can find within ourselves. This balance is pivotal, keeping their black metal away from the fascist creep that can absorb more purely outward-facing confrontational art. It is both a roaring, powerful album and one of immediately transparent emotional power. In short, it’s one of not just the best metal records, but overall one of the best albums of the year.

Portent released last Friday via Gilead Media.

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