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Black Bow (2015)
Rating: 8.5/10

Here’s a band I’ve been intrigued by for some time and yet unfortunately have never managed to find the time to listen to them… until now.

Undersmile is a quartet from Oxford in England and they’ve been floating around since 2009, with Anhedonia being their sophomore effort. It comes three years after the 2012 debut Narwhal and sandwiched in-between these two efforts are two split projects with Coma Wall (which in fact is an acoustic side project of Undersmile) and Bismuth.

I heard through the grapevine that Undersmile play doom metal, but it would be extremely unfair to tag the combo with this term. The band features the talented female duo Taz Corona-Brown and Hal Sterne, who both provide vocal and guitar duties. Behind them sits drummer Tom McKibbin and bassist Olly Corona-Brown.

Now, what sets these guys aside from your average doom, sludge, stoner or whatever-you-want-to-call-it band is the rather haunting vocals. Indeed, so creepy are they at times as they drift above the sombre trudge that they tend to stay with the listener for a long time, but mostly as a beautiful ingredient. Admittedly, when I first saw that Undersmile featured female vocals I was concerned that I’d be fuzzed up by just another occult rock posse, but this is certainly something very different.

The album comes in four monolithic segments, offering a total of seven tracks with all but one running for more than ten minutes. The first of these is the eerie, trickling ‘Labyrinths’ which is about a stark as doom metal – if you wish to call it that – gets where the female vocals are mere melancholic murmurs. And while it’s rather unnerving, it’s as if the track is being played out as some sort of lengthy weird intro until three-quarters in where the band unites as some blackened avalanche of morose terror that comes crushing down upon the unsuspecting listener. It’s bleak, creaky and almost antiquarian in its monolithic behaviour and akin to syrupy shadows engulfing the body. Yep, it’s a slow motion apocalypse featuring whining, droning guitars and a sudden shift in vocal patterns with the once ethereal voice now being a tortured bark.

From then on, I’m almost listening in trepidation for the next horror to ooze out from the speakers. With ‘Sky Burial’ we gets the albums shortest track at a gargantuan eight minutes, and again we have that similar eerie path of bare chord and distant whispers which float like spectres amongst crumbling grey ruins. Eventually a traipsing, trudging drum nods out of the blackness and is accompanied by a mammoth load of fuzz dropped on the ears like a lorry load of musical manure. Again, the vocals are upped to booming yelps before resorting back to scary ritualistic chants leaving us waiting like a bag of nerves for the next weighty instalment to come plundering.

Undersmile as a full-on doom act has a tendency to lean towards a My Dying Bride ache of gloom when they emerge from their stark chamber of trickling sounds. However, the quartet seems to use the bare bones to create their misty atmospherics, merely groaning and creaking without gimmicks or psychedelic nuances.

‘Song Of Stones’ follows exactly the same path again; a stark chord trickles like a black trickling stream, the drum is a mere tap on the window of the subconscious, and the vocals are ghostly mantras. Then, a few seconds before the four-minute mark, we get another truck-load of aching doom. It works its way so slowly from its portal that the vocal chants have to become more spiteful, otherwise they may become lost in the mire.

‘Atacama Sunburn’ casts aside the haunting sensibilities and starts as an aching plod, although just over halfway there’s almost a passage of something just a tad more up-tempo; the vocals barked out as esoteric orders until the track returns to its groaning groove.

It’s no surprise then that ‘Aeris’ reverts back to type; another slow suspenseful build-up of trickling stark chord, the track almost a mirror image of previous haunts except that this one takes even longer to put meat on the chalky bones. When it does gets going it’s less threatening for the most part; the vocals more controlled, but the fuzz still as suffocating.

‘Emmenagogue’ again continues with an eerie thread, but this time the monster riff and percussive cough is brief as the band quickly return to that funeral tip-toe laced by distant mournful vocal moans. But again, when the stab of horror comes it’s unexpected; the voice harshly boomed out like a burning witch casting her curses towards an unnerved audience tanned by the eager flames.

Finally, with ‘Knucklesucker’ we find ourselves smothered by another 11-minute plus episode of bare bones doom metal. The guitars are more discordant and down-tuned for this episode of sepulchral beauty, but it’s just as slow and just as ritualistic. However, where the track really works is with the unexpected last segment; the riff now comparatively upbeat when put alongside the rest of the record. And this is something I’d like to hear more of from this talented bunch of doom-mongers; Undersmile creating a very dark, and desolate ritualistic mantra that I daren’t repeat back to you for fear of turning you all into stone.

By playing a simplistic style of crushing metal, Undersmile has also constructed a rather harrowing experience that I won’t forget in a long while.

Neil Arnold

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