Skepticism – Ordeal (2015)

Author: Bloodshot Grub

Artist: Skepticism

Album: Ordeal

Label: Svart Records

Skepticism, one of the founding funeral doom metal bands, has taken an unexpected approach in recording their fifth full-length album, Ordeal. This isn’t a live album in the traditional sense, because, excepting the last two tracks (“Pouring” from Stormcrowfleet and “The March and the Stream” from Lead and Aether), the material has never appeared before on a recording. It was, however, recorded live before an audience in a concert venue. According to interviews, this was done to capture what they felt was an ineffable magic and energy present at their live shows. It’s an interesting idea, and I’m convinced it has the potential to capture a band’s music in a raw and authentic but also very effective way. That’s certainly the case with more traditional live albums, where the nuanced audio control possible in a studio environment is sacrificed in favor of pure live energy. Perhaps, then, this album would be best taken as a case study in how not to approach a live recording.

As is sometimes the case with live albums, the mix is the primary weakness. This is especially problematic for a funeral doom album, where so much rests on the music’s sense of weight and texture. The instruments are unbalanced and often jump forward in the mix unexpectedly. The guitars and the keyboards blend together into a thin wash. As there is no bassist, the low end is severely lacking, carried only partially by the drums. Little can be heard of the audience, although they’re clearly in the mix as one can occasionally hear casual conversation and the clink of bar glasses. Perhaps they were silently enraptured (and the live footage from the concert does seem to indicate exactly that), but that doesn’t carry over to a recording and my impression is more that they’re simply not that interested in the evening’s entertainment. Most egregious, however, is the treatment of the vocals. On Lead and Aether, Matti’s voice was distant, haunting, almost chant-like. Here, it’s presented out front and mostly dry, robbing his voice of its critical atmospheric qualities and emphasizing his weaknesses rather than his strengths. He takes a somewhat tonal approach that I’m seeing with greater regularity (one example being Niklas Kvarforth of the Swedish Shining), but his sense of pitch doesn’t seem to be quite aligned with the rest of the band. The effect is clashing and obnoxious and, with Matti being as far forward in the mix as he is, impossible to ignore.

Even with all this, there is some strength to the songs. “Momentary” begins with a steady, lilting drudge, like a man walking while carrying an enormous weight. Despite some keyboard flourishes that seem like they would be more at home in a merry-go-round, the overall effect is one of slowly-building but monumental despair. In the second section, the keyboards come out front and the song blossoms into a dirge of defeat befitting the genre. But it’s the last two tracks, those that have appeared on record before, that work best. Perhaps, having heard them before, I can accept them more as an interpretation rather than the definitive version. Or perhaps it’s just that the songwriting is better. In any case, those moments are not enough to carry the album, and more often than not the music falls flat.

I expect that, had I been there for the recording, I might have entirely different opinion. Ordeal is accompanied by a DVD featuring the video of the live performance, and even on video their presence carries a powerful gravity. But ultimately, it’s the album I’m reviewing, and their stage presence doesn’t carry over to the music itself. I respect that Skepticism decided to try something different on this album, but that’s the nature of taking a risk: sometimes it just doesn’t work out. Ordeal is an ambitious album with unfortunately flawed execution, and a dull spot in an otherwise respectable discography.

4.5/10

  • Bloodshot Grub

Check ’em out here: http://skepticism.bandcamp.com/

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