Sweden's Below put out one of the more under-appreciated albums this year. Across the Dark River is all kinds of Epicus Doomicus. And under the watchful ears of producer Andy LaRocque, Below never try to be something they're not. Instead, they stake out a comfort zone that allows them to relax within the confines of classic timbres. That gives Across the Dark River a rather timeless quality despite its newness. The record was officially released in April, but if someone told you Metal Blade had a time machine and plucked this from 1989, you'd buy it. Heck, you'd probably even check the soles of Metal Blade's shoes for smashed buttflies. It's that convincing.

Of course, part of the reason Across the Dark River works is because Below 'get' the era they're evoking. Check out the video for "Bid You Farewell" that lovingly and faithfully embraces the tropes of the day. 75 percent of the video's budget was blown on candles. The scenes are all light tricks and handycam-captured eye-of-the-fly shots of the band in action. There's no story, no elaborate effects. The only thing keeping it from being a Headbangers Ball relic is VHS grain.

That said, it's not like Below fancy themselves as historical dramatists. Give the video a closer look. See? It's snark-free. There are no smirks in sight. Below look stoked to be there. Their relative youth infuses this kind of crawl with a needed energy. It's hard to imagine a different outfit on the brink of a midlife crisis dooming with such conviction. In fact, since the epic doom bar has been set many times before, it'd be hard to listen to anyone just going through the motions. Below, though, strengthen the tried and true sound they love with debut gusto. Here, veteran chops meet rookie hunger. That dynamic keeps things fresh.

Below are good technicians, too. Epic doom lives or dies by the charisma of its vocalist. Singer Zeb certainly isn't shy with his melodramatic hollers. The rest of the band locks in and feeds off of the black magic released when musicians land together on the 'one.' Plus, when they solo, they solo. It's simply impressive Below don't fumble through their dextrous runs given the credentials of the man behind the studio glass. Can you imagine getting asked to shred in front of Andy LaRocque? How could you not get the yips, accidentally slice your finger off, and fill your pants while sobbing? But Paud and Berg hold their own. And Below hold their own on the whole, really. There are nearly 30 years of epic doom on the books, yet Across the Dark River doesn't make you want to flip to a different page.

"Bid You Farewell" appears on Below's Across the Dark River. It's available now through Metal Blade Records.

— Ian Chainey


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