Trial - Vessel - (8.5/10)
Published on February 3, 2015
Remember how sharply Portrait changed from their first album to the second, going from something like Mercyful Fate crossed with Motorhead to a Dissection tinged fusion between Painkiller and Abigail? Trial have also decided to go along a similar path after their excellent 2012 debut album The Primordial Temple and the results are interesting to say the least. While neo-traditional metal fans will hear familiar ideas learned from Angel Witch, Helstar, King Diamond, and likely Portrait as well, this band focuses further on the arching blackened melodies and eerier harmonies that Portrait used so well to harmonize against the rough and tumble riffing on Crimen Laesae Majestatis Divinae, resulting in what we might call a more “atmospheric” approach. Although they already had the musicianship of progressive metal musicians combined with the wisdom of the traditionalists of ages past, it is successfully repurposed to this interesting experiment in blackened heavy metal.
Off the bat, this album isn’t quite as riffy as the Malicious Arts EP (which bordered on the more aggressive US styled power metal like Liege Lord and Oliver Magnum) and the melodic sensibility is much more austere and minor-key melancholic, kind of like doom metal almost but filtered through a mixture of the aforementioned classic metal bands and more melodic black metal. This isn’t to say the riffs aren’t there but rhythmically they are simpler and almost more ambient in how they are strummed than on the debut.
While this might make it sound boring, the effect is less so for the slashing-and-dashing effect of their previous releases but rather a sense of texture and space, providing a foundation for more notable lead guitar presence to weave malevolent harmonies. The resulting effect feels airier and at times almost floaty, in essence working something akin to the black metal idea of percussively detached sounding riffing over fast tempos. Vessel ends up having that soaring atmosphere of second wave black metal but with the intense and sometimes melancholic passion of the more occult side of metal, with the usage of lead riffing being a particular spotlight that contributes strongly to this tone that contrasts the simpler backing riffs.
Compared to the debut, the songwriting here takes even bigger leaps into the strange grey zone between occultist heavy metal and the black metal it helped to inspire. After the cavernous doom metal intro, “To New Ends” burns its way in with an almost Watain like lead melody before turning to a vast, spacey tremolo strum that serves as a branching-off point for hanging minor-key leads and subtly arching blackened melodies. “Through Bewilderment” has a marching riff that wouldn’t sound out of place on The Primordial Temple that gradually morphing into triumphant NWOBHM style harmonies and then a slower dirge sections where a carefully picked melody hangs under slowed strums. “Where Man Becomes All” has a delicately picked flittery pattern that exists with thrashy breaks and even short segments of cleanly played guitar. Finally, 13 minute monster “Restless Blood” encapsulates all this album has to offer, a multi-layered complex-yet-not-stereotypically-proggy magnum opus that summons forces from all across the New Wave of Traditional Metal Spectrum and blackened territories explored to create an epic with the same grandiose ambitions as both Manilla Road and Arch-era Fates Warning.
Although I prefer the aesthetic and choices in technique on the debut more, I can’t deny that they’ve successfully transformed themselves without losing sight of their core idea. Namely, creating a form of classic heavy metal that avoids the juicy, bouncey ‘Maiden-esque swashbuckling for a more contemplative and complex vision of the sound. While the intersection of more accessible black metal and the darker end of classic heavy metal might mesh awkwardly to some, the band understand the strengths and the tone implied by each and every riff . They aren’t afraid to deviate from standard song structures and the usual weapons in the trad metal arsenal to experiment with ideas learned from Sweden’s long black metal tradition. Whether or not this is progress is up for debate but what’s important is the precedent they set for a movement often associated, both rightfully and wrongfully, for merely repeating the ideas of past masters without adding anything new of their own. Perhaps this album is merely an experiment before they return to their roots or it’s the beginning of an artistic transformation. Regardless, it stands proudly on its own merits.