Of the recent revival of a rather traditional take on doom metal and stoner rock, there has existed a distinct trend that has established a definitive point of divergence between the flagships of this resurgence and their classic influences, but it was one that only became readily apparent relatively recently. Unequivocally, with universally acclaimed releases from two of the biggest bellwethers of this renaissance, Pallbearer and Elder, having dropped this year, 2017 has yielded a fruitful profit for doom metal and stoner rock, but has also underlined a new direction for the genres, and one which relates to both style and aesthetics. Firstly, I doubt it’s only me who has noticed the fact that some of the most gorgeous album artwork released over the last few years has been plastered on the front of doom metal records. This first occurred to me personally with the unveiling of the cover art for Inter Arma’s Paradise Gallows, which remains my favourite album cover from last year, and this trend has since continued into 2017, with the aforementioned records from Pallbearer and Elder, Heartless and Reflections of a Floating World, both boasting beautiful illustrations with luscious colour palettes for their covers, even in spite of the dark themes associated with their lyrical iconography and doom metal as a whole. What makes this trend all the more striking, however, is the fact that the artists from whom these bands are taking stylistic cues typically brandished rather grim, murky and sometimes even monochrome album artwork. Ranging from Electric Wizard’s Dopethrone to the original cover art for Sleep’s Dopesmoker to even the artwork of classic Black Sabbath albums, the stories told by these album covers are ones of evil, anguish, depression and gloom, in keeping with the fundamental aesthetic principles of doom metal. As such, this drift towards more expressive and rich visual sensibilities amongst modern doom metal and stoner rock outfits is reflected by a slightly more subtle sonic tone shift. Whilst there has often remained a progressive edge to the stylings of many classic doom metal acts, groups such as Pallbearer and Elder have honed in on this tenet of the genre and expanded on it greatly, whilst introducing much sleeker, serpentine song structures, compared to the abrasive grit of a band like Electric Wizard. The result is an exceptionally vibrant and colourful sonic palette that allows room for greatly expanded expressive capabilities, with such artists pivoting between passages of grumbling, lumbering sorrow to triumphant and elegant climaxes. With these aesthetic and stylistic changes to doom metal and stoner rock being on my mind courtesy of Pallbearer and Elder’s latest releases, upon seeing the warm, luscious colour design and epic sense of majesty of the cover art to DVNE’s new album, Asheran, I was under the instant impression that this was going to be a progressive-leaning stoner rock record. I was right.
Despite being previously unfamiliar with DVNE (pronounced “dune” and not “divine”, as I initially assumed), I felt as if the album cover to Asheran had revealed all to me at just a glance. The prominence of a warm, orange glow hinted towards a definite stoner rock hue, perhaps interspersed with some influences from desert rock, which would only be appropriate given the band’s name. Likewise, the portrayal of a rugged fighter or tribesman, weapon in hand, standing on the edge of a ridge, looking across the vast, overbearing landscape struck me as an allusion to a prominent progressive angle in both the compositional style and the lyrical imagery. Specifically, with the cover’s vivid illustration being encircled by a surrounding blackness, I imagined there would be some power dynamic between dark and light, good and evil or some other dichotomy throughout the record’s narrative, and this was somewhat accurate, with the album’s lyrical themes balancing scientific advancement with ecological regression, as the scenery switches back and forth between utopia and dystopia. Undoubtedly, with the artwork to Asheran ticking all the right boxes for what I look for in an album cover, I felt like I had a relatively good picture of what I was to expect from DVNE going into the record, but I also trod forth warily, conscious of the fact that I had such high expectations of the music based on the cover art alone. Thankfully, Asheran lives up to these expectations for the most part, with the record’s vibrant sonic palette paralleling the luscious colours of the cover artwork, just as the progressive song structures often capture a sense of splendour in their slick complexity. DVNE’s refined songwriting and polished musicianship across Asheran lends itself to crafting another striking and vital stoner rock and doom metal album to add to 2017’s winning streak.
There are most definitely a host of influences at play throughout Asheran, with DVNE likely taking cues from some of their aforementioned contemporaries, with Inter Arma and Elder standing out as probable candidates, whilst some bands on the sludgier side of the metal spectrum, particularly Baroness and Mastodon, seem to act as stylistic touchstones across much of the album. This being said, attempting to define DVNE as a sum of their influences only provides a glimpse of the broader picture, with the band drawing from some more esoteric musical sources at times as to carve out a more definitive identity for themselves. Although the incorporation of exotic scales is hardly a new feat for metal, the whiffs of double harmonic scale in the introductory riff to the opening track, The Crimson Path, not only retain a distinct Eastern hue, but are also played in a descending, sliding pattern that is evocative of the way in which an instrument such as a sitar would perform such a lick, especially with the whirling guitar drone that accompanies this melody. It’s during such sections wherein DVNE capture a vast and dynamic desert rock sound that aids their progressive song structures incredibly well, with the ensuing passages of punctuated drum phrases and accented guitar stabs marching forth with a sense of both urgency and adventure, leading towards the song’s explosive conclusion, during which the guitar melodies reach an emotive apex. Given the references to the journey of Muhammad and his followers from Mecca to Yathrib, the track’s solid, progressive structure and use of Middle Eastern scales stand out as being exceptionally well-conceived as a means of translating the feeling of a burdensome trek across the desert to the listener. Although there is a pronounced Mastodon vibe prominent throughout much of The Crimson Path, primarily arising from the thick, brittle guitar tones and soaring vocal harmonies, and with even the lyrical allusions being reminiscent of the tales of a sultan wandering the desert on the sludge metal outfit’s latest album, Emperor of Sand, DVNE manage to work in enough influences from other stylistic sensibilities to draw the song away from being pure Mastodon worship. In particular, there’s somewhat of a psychedelic tinge to the track, and not one that simply arises from the watery, swirling bass line that opens the cut, but also from the various extended instrumental breaks, and with even the aforementioned Middle Eastern scales potentially referencing the Anatolian-inspired strands of psych-rock. Likewise, the succeeding song, Viridian Bloom, not only incorporates very subtle double harmonic melodies once again, but also appropriates some slightly blues-tinged guitar leads into a heavier, sludgier setting, with this balance striking a semblance of psychedelia every now and then in an arrestingly dynamic manner. Thirst and its eruptions of blast beats and blistering instrumental breaks, wherein Allan Paterson’s wild contributions from behind the kit rival the technical weight of Mastodon’s Brann Dailor’s drum work, strike a more cryptic equilibrium between DVNE’s grittier, sludgy side and their more cultivated, progressive side that makes for an exceptionally spirited and turbulent track. Indeed, from the emotional highs of the clean vocals during the first passage of Descent of the Asheran to the pummelling, borderline death metal dirtiness of the beginning of Scion, DVNE cover an impressive amount of ground over the course of Asheran, whilst nevertheless anchoring their stylings in some firm, sludgy roots, making for an album that feels like the epic journey referenced throughout the record’s lyrics.
The scope of the stylistic territory covered by DVNE across Asheran is greatly benefited by much of the production across the course of the album. It’s hard to imagine that the record would feel quite as cohesive as it does if it weren’t for the meaty, low-end of the guitars and the deep rattle of the blaring bass being as strikingly potent as they are, not to mention that Victor Vicart and Dan Barter’s paired clean and distorted vocals make for some compelling moments of light and shade throughout the tracklisting. This dynamic vocal tapestry bolsters some of the most powerful moments on songs such as The Crimson Path and Viridian Bloom, whilst also cogently playing into the dramatic tone shifts throughout the album’s centrepiece, Descent of the Asheran. This being said, there are times wherein the mix buries the vocals a bit too much during the heavier sections, during which the abrasive interplay of clean and distorted vocals could have been used to its greatest impact, just as there are points, such as towards the beginning of Thirst, wherein the yelled vocals aren’t quite provided with the deep cushioning that could have completely fortified their vigour. In spite of these quibbles, however, the production is incredibly accommodating for the dynamic range of Asheran for the most part, as may be best demonstrated by how well the mixing handles everything from the intertwining guitar and bass tinkering at the beginning of Viridian Bloom and Sunset’s Grace to the culminations of crunchy intensity on Descent of the Asheran and Scion. Whilst on the topic of criticisms, however, there is the odd instance here and there in the tracklisting during which DVNE allow certain sections of songs to simply run their course whilst remaining relatively unchanged, without entirely engaging with their progressive tendencies as well as they could have done. This arguably comes to a head during the first half of Descent of the Asheran, wherein the dainty, intertwining acoustic and electric guitar melodies can feel somewhat bloated after a few cycles, although the infectious sung melodies throughout this initial passage are strong enough to recover a more minimal song progression to kick things off. Outside of a rather narrow selection of gripes, however, DVNE’s compositional chops across Asheran are admirably well-rounded, with the band exhibiting rigid fundamentals when it comes to balancing the progressive elements of their tortuous songwriting style with some gripping performances and a keen ear for finely-worked melodies that can keep the listener invested even during some of the more testing, lengthier songs.
With some of the most prominent powerhouses of modern doom metal and stoner rock having released the strongest albums of their career this year, DVNE naturally had a lot to go up against, purely because expectations for outfits of these stylistic disciplines will have naturally been raised, courtesy of 2017 having been so bountiful for these genres. Yet, treading forth seemingly unfazed, Asheran matches the vibrant heights and kaleidoscopic breadth of its competition during its most dynamic and fervent moments, thus unquestionably earning a place alongside such releases as contributing to one of the best years for doom metal and stoner rock in quite some time. With a grandiose sonic expanse that parallels the magnificence of its cover artwork, Asheran is a captivating journey through some towering and resplendent soundscapes comprised of both elegant cascades of lustrous melodies and downright, gritty sludge.
The Vinyl Verdict: 7.5/10