Resurrected after a six year split, French Black Metal troupe SETH, who reformed in 2011, finally return with their fifth full length album, “The Howling Spirit”. The French scene is rife with off-kilter somewhat avant-garde Black Metal acts; thanks in part to the influence of DEATHSPELL OMEGA and BLUT AUS NORD, but SETH had their hand in the shaping of the scene with their first few albums. They’ve never had any groundbreaking releases, but they’re discography is fairly solid while staying true to the out of the box style the French scene is known for.
While “The Howling Spirit” does have a lot in common with their previous efforts, it seems more structured with a stronger focus on atmospheric melodies and minor key developments. The overall effect is a fairly straight forward Black Metal album that is more focused and venomous, but aside from a few anomalies, is also less adventurous than before. The band does toy with some clean vocals during a few sections, most notably on the opener, “In Aching Agony”, and even boasts a guest appearance from Kvohst (of HEXVESSEL, DØDHEIMSGARD) on “One Ear To Earth, One Eye On Heaven”. The majority of the album sounds a lot like a lot of other bands: the distorted yet wandering minor key style of latter-day MARDUK combined with the frenzied yet controlled drumming of DEATHSPELL OMEGA and standard, fast paced trem picking. “The Howling Spirit” boasts a fairly clean and polished production that allows all of the instruments to shine through nicely. The drums are on the plastic side of fence, but the sheer force behind the kit makes up for it.
The drum performance is spot on, though. Most of the albums sports pummeling yet technical displays of speedy double bass runs and start/stop double kick segments supplemented by precise rolls and cymbal work. The drums pretty much blast at full speed for the entire album, even when the rest of the music slows down into melodic wandering. The only slow drumming is during the spacey segments, like when Kvohst lends his sullen voice to “One Ear To Earth, One Eye On Heaven”; which leads me into the vocal performance. Overall, the vocals are a fairly standard affair, bearing some strong similarities to Mikko Aspa (DEATHSPELL OMEGA and CLANDESTINE BLAZE), being a deeper version of typical Black Metal raspiness. The guitars range from melodious yet distorted minor key riffing to chunky and rhythmic palm muting to standard second wave trem riffing. The entirety of the album feels a lot like a healthy mix of MARDUK and DEATHSPELL OMEGA: not as scathing as MARDUK or as complex as DEATHSPELL OMEGA, but a good frame of reference.
The few jaunts away from standard Black Metal affair leave me wanting something more. While decent, the clean vocals on “In Aching Agony” sound forced and come across like a strained attempt at the soaring vocals of ICS Vortex. “Howling Prayers (Act I)” is an acoustic segue that lightens the load a little with classical patterned acoustic picking and strummed chords, giving a little bit of space between the hectic, blasting tracks. The previously mentioned clean vocal segment performed by Kvohst is decent but nothing spectacular. As much as I really enjoy his sullen melodic vocals, it falls flat here. SETH attempts to purvey a somewhat dissonant and creepy atmosphere, but it sounds completely out of place and fails to impress. Even these parts that attempt to stretch away from a standard approach aren’t very adventurous in the long run. Several parts of the album also begin to stagnate, like the end of “Killing My Eyes”, where the band just refuses to end the song before aimlessly wandering on and on.
By playing it safe, “The Howling Spirit” is a fairly standard Black Metal album that should please fans of DEATHSPELL OMEGA, MARDUK and the like. SETH starts to stray away from the French style of off the wall Black Metal with this one, but it is still listenable and better than a lot of other garbage being churned out lately. I wouldn’t say that this is the best album that SETH has ever brought forth, but it’s decent and fits nicely beside their other works. Perhaps SETH can get their wings back and venture a little further out on their next album. Regardless, “The Howling Spirit” is a solid album chock full of quality musicianship, even if there aren’t many surprises.
The first pressing, digipak edition comes with two bonus tracks, “Ten Barrels (A Scourge For The World, A Plague For His Soul)” and “Howling Prayers (Act II)”. “Ten Barrels” sounds like much of the rest of the album, with a stronger focus on melodic guitar lines which complemented by chunky riffing and fast paced drumming. “Howling Prayers (Act II)” continues exactly where it’s first part left off, with classically inspired acoustic guitar strumming and patterned picking. Honestly, you’re not missing a whole heck of a lot if you don’t get these two tracks, but be warned if you’re looking to buy this.
(Online July 28, 2013)