Emphasis on ambiance has long since existed as a cornerstone of black metal and its defining principles, but the nature of how artists have approached crafting these atmospheres has continuously evolved, along with the genre as a whole. With the grainy and gloomy air of a record by, say, Darkthrone once encapsulating this stylistic linchpin, the fundamentals of foreign genres are so commonly integrated into modern black metal that the significance of atmosphere has taken on a much broader interpretation. Case in point, Sorrow Plague’s sophomore album, Homecoming, incorporates as many symphonic sounds into the cascades of tremolo-picked guitars and blast beats as it does elements pulled from shoegazing, ambient music and post-rock, with the end product being bright and luscious, rather than dark and austere. Hailing from the UK and masterminded by sole member David Lovejoy, Sorrow Plagues has had a prolific start to its existence, having been conceived less than three years ago and having already secured three EPs and, now, two LPs under its name. As such, the artist’s blend of supple and spacious soundscapes with the sheer depressive force of atmospheric black metal has been firmly established by previous material, particularly the project’s self-titled, full-length debut from early last year. As someone who had been vaguely aware of Sorrow Plagues before delving into Homecoming, past output from the outfit had certainly left an impression on me, but I nevertheless found Lovejoy to wear his influences on his sleeve a little too much for my liking at times. What’s more, the fact that the inspirations for the musician seemingly differed little from the stylistic touchstones employed by fellow artists working within a similar paradigm led to a looming feeling of familiarity that I felt was never quite shaken off. With post-black bands like Alcest, Deafheaven and perhaps even Wolves In The Throne Room routinely being referenced, as well as post-rock staples such as Godspeed! You Black Emperor and maybe a touch of God Is An Astronaut, Sorrow Plagues may have been emotionally powerful, but I found myself too often being reminded of other artists. With the album being undeniably strong for a debut album from a compositional standpoint, I went into Sorrow Plagues’ newest release primarily hoping for a heightened sense of exploration as to truly establish the definitive musical identity for the artist that seemed to be missing on his debut. In this sense, Homecoming is most definitely a step in the right direction. The record’s atmospheres are still forceful and cathartic, just as Lovejoy’s songwriting chops still see the inclusion of many graceful passages of meandering guitar lines and hypnotic instrumental arrangements, but there is evidence of a handful of stylistic risks that pay off, as to inject Homecoming with a compelling amount of character. Although not without its flaws, with there being a few instances in which the reliance on grandiose ambiance overshadows the songwriting somewhat, Homecoming ultimately marks a substantial improvement to Sorrow Plagues’ sound, moving into territory that feels increasingly like Lovejoy’s own.
On the album’s opener, Departure, Lovejoy wastes no time laying on the expansive atmospheres. The dainty, delayed guitar line that introduces the cut is more akin to what one would expect to open a U2 song rather than a black metal track, but the simple delicacy of the fluttering notes sets the stage perfectly for the outbreak of the walls of shimmering guitar leads that soar above the backdrop of blissful ambience. Lovejoy kicks things off with a dexterous and immaculate guitar solo, which is made all the more satisfying by the syncopated snare pattern above the true blue, black metal double bass that instantly provides Departure with a unique flavour, distinguishing it from the succeeding cuts in the tracklisting. In fact, the drumming plays a pivotal role in dictating the direction of the piece, weaving in and out of various time changes as to hammer home whichever emotive hue the music is leaning towards. Although the production value for the drums is a bit too squeaky clean, with a slightly grittier quality perhaps being more suited for providing a dynamic sense of counterpoint to the sleek sonic tone of the rest of the instrumentation, it’s hard to be too critical of the drumming when the left-hook of a punctuated beat switch that occurs towards the centre of the song is such an impactful moment. It’s also admirable the extent to which the artist doesn’t rely too heavily on his slick guitar skills to continuously carry the song’s treble range, with it being the thick textures of synthesized strings that act as the primary, propulsive force that elevates the chorus section of Departure to its epic emotional heights.
The inclusion of symphonic elements as a means of varying the instrumental layers across these songs takes a more subtle approach on Isolated, which sees one of Lovejoy’s melodic guitar lines supported by a very faint chiming sound, presumably being made by a glockenspiel or some closely related instrument. Whilst only barely discernible in the midst of Sorrow Plagues’ usual atmospheric tidal waves, the delicate ringing most definitely adds to the song’s vibrant tinge, which works especially well when contrasted with what is potentially Lovejoy’s most chilling vocal performance on the entirety of Homecoming. The musician’s usual, ice-cold cries are intermixed with some rawer and more unaffected yells that appeal to depressive anger in its most genuine form. In terms of pure compositional chops, Isolated potentially even tops Departure in how elegantly the piece’s numerous, fluid passages weave in and out of one another. Again, this is fortified by some excellent and accommodating work from behind the drum kit, which acts as the driving force behind many of the cut’s most emotionally intense moments, as Lovejoy’s burning guitar melodies take centre stage. The same could surely be said of Irreversible, with the bass and drums assuming a disciplined, and even somewhat funky, groove at one point, as Lovejoy cranks out some of his most melodically eventful guitar leads from across the entire tracklisting. This is a trend that even continues onto Relinquish, which sees Sorrow Plagues’ songwriting put its foot to the floor more so than any other point on the album, with the song flying out of the gate right from the onset, only for further eruptions of pure blackened fury to ensue. Ultimately, what all of this points towards is a heightened sense of compositional and stylistic variation on Homecoming that matches Sorrow Plagues’ expansive ambiance and grand timbre, making for an album that is, for the most part, very well-balanced in all of its intricacies.
This being said, if there’s one prominent pitfall across Homecoming, it would have to be the fact that, at times, the awe-inspiring atmospheres of the record will be relied on a bit too heavily, to the point that the songwriting may suffer slightly as a result. With the album’s 50 minutes of material being spread across just six tracks, it can be hard to pinpoint exact examples of this, but the longest cut in the tracklisting, Disillusioned, encompasses the issue perhaps more so than any of the surrounding songs. Undoubtedly, Disillusioned stands alone on Homecoming, courtesy of the quivering guitars that sheen above the pummelling drum work on the tom-toms, but this section largely exists to establish the track’s general tone, thus feeling somewhat overblown, given the amount of time it takes for the piece to truly get underway. What’s more, with the synth melodies and overall chord progression of the song being a lot more elementary compared to other cuts from Homecoming, the 10-minute duration of the track doesn’t feel entirely justified, just as the two-and-a-half-minute introductory section to the closing title track is rather bloated and feels somewhat aimless. Thankfully, when this song does get started, it emanates one of the most vivid and colourful soundscapes of the album, primarily courtesy of how gloriously and triumphantly the usual cascades of synthesized strings support the surprising saxophone solo that acts as the crowning decoration of the piece. Indeed, with the atmospheres across Homecoming being as beguiling as they are, it’s easy to see how it could be tempting to simply let some of these songs run their course with the ambiance acting as the guiding force, but the points across the record where this does seem to be the case are occasionally left lacking from a compositional perspective.
With such an impressive and vigorous sound, even the more wanting moments across Homecoming are hardly uninteresting or lacking in terms of their general vibrancy. Of course, it seems that tightening up some of the songwriting aspects of Sorrow Plagues’ music will be the next big stepping stone for the project towards a truly defining release, but nonetheless, the progress displayed solely between the outfit’s debut and this new album is highly admirable. With adroit musicianship across the board, as well as a selection of fantastic compositional ideas, Homecoming is certainly one of the more charismatic and colourful atmospheric black metal records to have been released this year, and simply allowing the waves of illusory, cathartic and monumental sonic bliss to wash over oneself makes for an incredibly gratifying listening experience.
The Vinyl Verdict: 7.5/10