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Schammasch’s “Hearts of No Light” Can’t Square a Triangle, but Shapes Up on its Own

hearts of no light

It is no surprise that Schammasch’s follow-up to 2016’s Triangle, called The Maldoror Chants: Hermaphrodite, is a bit of a let-down compared to its predecessor. This is no fault of the band’s; Triangle was 100 minutes spread across three discs, a record of size not because of ludicrous notions of “bigger is better” but because the conceptual framework of the album generated a lot of usable quality material. In my opinion, Triangle is one of the greatest heavy metal records of the past decade, standing well beside work by other groups such as Tribulation and In Solitude as powerful statements both of visceral immediacy as well as intellectually-stimulating and satisfying conceptual and lyrical work. The fact that The Maldoror Chants: Hermaphrodite, and now this newest release Hearts of No Light, diminish in comparison is not unexpected and, truthfully, not a major knock against the band. Triangle was one clearly assembled via intense deliberacy attendant to a conceptual framework with a specific large-scale project in mind; the fact that Hearts of No Light aims more to be a “regular” record, albeit one of strong musical quality, is no sleight against it.

Hearts of No Light‘s musical sweep clearly takes cues from Schammasch’s previous record. Triangle exploded their sound outward beyond the blackened death framework of their early records, more or less totally expunging the death metal elements while folding in post-rock, progressive music, orchestral music, and even mild downtempo electronic ideas into a broader black metal whole. Hearts of No Light consolidates these notions into singular tracks rather than isolated arcs within the context of a larger album, producing a more even-keeled musical experience song to song. There is a clear strength to this: each of these songs could stack up favorably to any more traditional black metal track of the year, showing both more formal/musical inventiveness as well as creating more compelling atmospheres and movements.

There’s unfortunately a downside to this, which is that each of those conceits, which felt so special and attended to before, now begin to feel a bit samey, the same idea sets being deployed effectively on every track. There’s little room for these ideas to breathe and explore themselves the way that on Triangle, say, the atonal near-Gorgutsian avant-gardeness of “Crepusculum” could eventually give way to the lapping waves of tremolo picked guitars of “Metanoia” and eventually by album’s end deliver you to the warm atmospheric sweep of “The Empyrean.”

This is frustrating within Hearts of No Light, not because the songs are not good but precisely because they are. Take album closer “Innermost, Lowermost Abyss,” for instance: pound for pound, this is perhaps Schammach’s greatest composition, containing the brightness of rustic classical guitar, striking a perfect balance between high-brow art music and the earthiness of folk music, while church bells and choral elements swarm not like a black metal track but like orchestral music, under which a synthesized noise element conjures the requisite darkness and sense of coming collapse we expect of black metal. It’s a powerful and restrained close to a record that largely uses black metal as a primary basis for constructing something else, approaching a generalized progressive music ideal in the same way as Ihsahn, albeit with more of a consistent focus on the black metal elements.

Likewise, mid-album track “Rays Like Razors” would fit perfectly on Triangle, utilizing the same slow arpeggios of dissonant chords resolving to consonance at just the right time, tasteful deployment of mid-tempo tremolo picking, well-mixed drums enjoining like orchestral percussion rather than a thundering heavy metal salvo. The tracks on Hearts of No Light are intently balanced, restraining themselves in a way more befitting an orchestral conductor than a metal band. The result are songs that are measured and deliberate in their dynamic shifts, with not a single riff or passage feeling tacked on or improperly deployed. Songs like “Ego Sum Omega” and “Katabasis” are some of their best material, and venues such as Decibel including Hearts of No Light on their year-end list are not wrong in doing so. These songs are worth paying deference to.

It’s frustrating then that, despite the great quality of these tracks, it just feels that little bit more tiring to get through than their last full-length despite being 20 minutes shorter. Perhaps it’s because that previous record was divided into three 30-minute discs, a much more digestible unit for music of this kind, while Hearts of No Light is an unbroken 70-minute span. But it’s also the previously mentioned pacing issues of difference between tracks, where placing these songs side by side can induce, at its best, that sense of confluence and crescendo such that, by album’s end, you’re brought to an internal abyssal insight and experience. At its worst, though, things can be tiring here.

It’s ironic because, had this been their debut, or even had Triangle not existed, Hearts of No Light would comfortably be their best record and exceptionally easy to laud. And, to reiterate, the individual songs Hearts of No Light are absolutely worthy of that high credit. But in the context of their full body of work instead of a selective one, it is an ever-so-slightly worse record, one that produces more consistently great and full songs at the cost of the cohesion of the unbroken album experience. Granted, Schammasch’s “slightly weaker” is still stronger than a great deal of other bands, which often do black metal in general a disservice by erasing its deep roots in the avant-garde by reproducing the same sonic ideas and textures and forms over and over.

Hearts of No Light is a delight and worthy of praise; it just isn’t the best work this group has ever delivered.

Hearts of No Light released last Friday via Prosthetic Records.

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