I like to think that I’ve been around long enough to have doubt towards hype, especially when said hype is being veered towards a relatively new artist. As a rule, hype is fickle more times than it is substantive, and it never lasts for long. All the same, when there is more worthwhile music out there to hear than could be heard in several lifetimes, I’ve come to believe that there’s always a clear reason why this band might be getting attention in the place of others. The hype may be justified (see: Cult of Fire or Bölzer) or even contrived (see: Myrkur), but hyped albums do, in large part, define the musical dialogue every year.
That I saw people decry Akhlys‘ The Dreaming I as potential album-of-the-year material when we weren’t even halfway into 2015 should have been met with a dismissive rolling of eyes, but the fact that this praise was coming from people who really knew what they were talking about got me excited about it. That excitement was intensified when I saw the surreal artwork, and intensified further still when I discovered the project’s association with Nightbringer. Considering Akhlys’ history as a dark ambient project (whose debut, Supplication, was purely ambient), it makes more sense that The Dreaming I is far more based in atmosphere than Nightbringer, and indeed more so than the majority of black metal I’ve heard this year.
The specific choices in style on The Dreaming I make the album a bit tricky to review. Although there is a solid sense of composition and melodic undertones to the vast pieces here, just about everything about Akhlys has been geared to the specific atmosphere—one clearly meant to evoke a dream-state. I can easily see why this album has been so praised by some. For what it’s trying to accomplish, Akhlys have nailed an aura of dissociation. The production is clean yet simultaneously muddied to the point where it sounds like the album is being heard from a great distance away—quite like a dream, indeed, in that sense. Akhlys has been inspired in their pursuit of a surreal vibe, but I find the atmospheric choices have limited the music in other ways.
It’s a difficult and rare thing where I am forced to mediate between my enjoyment of an album and my perception of its actual quality. It’s only ever happened a few times, but where do I go with The Dreaming I? I have no doubt that Akhlys fully knew what they wanted to do with this album, and they certainly achieved it, but there must be good reason why it does not strike me with some degree of life-altering awe. To their credit, I am impressed that Akhlys have created a distinctive sort of atmospheric black metal on this first attempt. Any disappointment I have results from the fact that I know that this music is being conjured by the hands of potential masters. Their pursuit of atmosphere is convincing, but the band’s distant, muddied sound feels underwhelming, almost like an integral point of the album’s design.
The guitars and drums, as cleanly produced as they are, are mixed into a murky jumble, and though all the ingredients are more or less audible, they lack the punch I’d hope to hear from these compositions. The vocals make for a thin, whisper-like delivery, as though a demon were trying to communicate with your subconscious mind. With ‘Breath and Levitation’, the effect is initially profoundly intense. The use of melody amidst the murk and surrealism is powerful on the album’s opener, and I was convinced I was hearing one of the year’s best albums from this first track. While ‘Breath and Levitation’ still strikes me as one of the year’s best black metal songs, I don’t get the same sense of awe from the rest of the album. It is particularly on the over-bloated ‘Consummation’ that the concrete elements that gave Akhlys’ atmosphere a backing of force have faded away into the background. The atmosphere remains, but gone is much of what kept the music engaging in other ways.
The more I’ve listened to it, the more I’ve come to regard The Dreaming I almost like a dark ambient record. The presence of eerie guitar leads on all tracks but the actual ambient closer, ‘Into the Indigo Abyss’, dare to argue this impression is inaccurate, but I do think there’s a certain sense in approaching The Dreaming I as a soundscape piece rather than a concrete composition. In truth, it is both. I don’t want to say that Akhlys should have eased up on their atmospheric bent, however, because the very thing that underwhelmed me about them is the thing that makes them stand out in my mind. Is The Dreaming I a great album? I think, like all truly surreal art, any interpretation is open to extreme subjectivity, and I think it’s better that way.
01) Breath and Levitation
02) Tides of Oneiric Darkness
04) The Dreaming Eye
05) Into the Indigo Abyss