At a point where labels are no longer essential support for a band to be heard, signing with a label becomes a mark of kinship as much as a financial contract. Boutique labels are often curated according to their founder’s personal taste, so a band signing on with a trusted name becomes a recommendation of sorts. So it is for Profound Lore, at least. From Agalloch through to Mitochondrion and Leviathan, I know to trust the label whenever I’m looking to hear a fresh sound from the North American extreme metal landscape.
It is via Profound Lore’s roster that I first heard the name Vanum, and the label’s endorsement that first made me interested in checking them out. For what it’s worth, I don’t think a better label could have been chosen to distribute Realm of Sacrifice. This is a four-track hulk of atmospheric black metal with a lean on beautiful minimalism that reminds me of Drudkh‘s own debut, Forgotten Legends. Add to that a liberal helping of post-metal-oriented distortion, a bent for sad melodies recalling a slew of bands labelled as ‘dark metal’, and a fiercely organic production job with due emphasis on that most clandestine of black metal ingredients: the bass guitar. Mix these together and you’ll come up with a laundry list of go-to traits for the melancholic corner of American black metal. Vanum are making music drawn from the foundations of many of their longer-standing labelmates. It may have been a recipe for real mediocrity, but Vanum know how to wring the best out of the ingredients they’ve used on this album.
Vanum may be a relatively new name, but these two musicians are fairly seasoned. Both are members of Ash Borer (another Profound Lore act) in varying respects, and drummer Michael Rekevics is a primary force in Fell Voices as well. Vanum is a fitting partnership, it seems, stemming from a school of bands that affirm Weakling‘s enduring influence in the ‘American’ sphere. Although anyone who has heard something of Ash Borer should have a fair idea of what to expect from Vanum, I would say the bands these guys are most associated with leave a stronger mark than this. As stylistically similar as Ash Borer is (full-bodied sound, long minimalistic songs, you know the drill…), there is an elemental force to that band’s music that makes it feel vital. In the case of Fell Voices, I have loved the way they would contort the Cascadian formula with murkier sound experiments. As for Vanum: It’s American black metal, alright, but Realm of Sacrifice doesn’t really come through with a sound that the project can rightfully call its own.
The first time listening through Realm of Sacrifice, it played like a who’s who of familiar traits from familiar sources. As I mentioned previously, Drudkh’s Forgotten Legends was the first album that came to mind as I put Realm of Sacrifice on. The organic tone and central riff of ‘Realm of Ascension’ is strikingly similar to Forgotten Legends‘ own opener, ‘False Dawn’. Although nowhere as atmospheric as that classic, the association should offer a point of reference as to the angle Vanum are playing from. The mainstay of their playing time is composed around long-reaching structures with major emphasis placed around a few major riffs. While Vanum’s songs are certainly blown up with the help of minimalistic repetition, there’s a calculated sense of dynamic in the compositions that I think a lot of atmospheric black metal tends to lack. Some of the slower sections recall post-metal in the shade of Altar of Plagues, and lead-driven moments are comparable to Wolves in the Throne Room or even Agalloch.
I suppose if you’re going to be drawing from the shared aesthetics of other established acts, it’s best to go for the best. In this sense, I’d say Vanum have great taste. The ingredients used on Realm of Sacrifice really do sound like a patchwork of the Profound Lore roster. If it’s better to judge Vanum instead for the way they’ve organized those sounds together, they may fair a bit better under the microscope. The crescendos and decrescendos in their songwriting are commonplace for post-black metal, but the predictability doesn’t totally belie the effectiveness of these tricks. In truth, the ideas on Realm of Sacrifice are actually very solid, and for the life of me I wish I could enjoy them as much as they might deserve. Alas, each time I’ve put the album on, the music strikes my ear like a composite of USBM bands—powerful and well-crafted in its own right, but otherwise lacking a void of its own.
01) Realm of Ascension
02) In Immaterial Flame
04) Realm of Sacrifice