HAIL SPIRIT NOIR – Pneuma (2012)

Review by: Jonathan Birch
Album assigned by: A.A

My first impressions of this album were along the lines of “Dear Lord! What is this horrendous cacophony?!” You see, I have an aversion to generally all things black or thrash metal. My impression of those genres is something involving endless, repetitive guitar riffs, tinker tonker / whizz bang drum solos, bass work that shakes the very foundations of buildings, and a sweaty long haired man doing his best to make his voice go hoarse. But off this album, only the latter is really present in any magnitude.
The record starts off as one would expect, with a track titled “Mountain of Horror”. From the cover, it’s apparent that the subject matter involves some degree of satanic witchcraft and masonry, and what little I could make of the growled lyrics certainly pertains to this idea. However, I had an inkling that this Greek outfit didn’t take themselves too seriously, as there is a slight tongue in cheek inflection to some of it, as though they are purposefully going over the top (or at least I hope). I’d be inclined to believe progressive death metal and Devilry have gone hand in hand long enough that any more releases are to be treated flippantly/ironically by the artist.
While the subject matter is about what I expected, it’s the music and production that surprised me the most. There is enough variety added in the form of keyboards (mostly organ or mellotron) that is atypical of most modern rock/metal, but is probably the norm for progressive style. It gives the music a nice layered effect, and each track likes to change things up with some added acoustic guitar codas or tasteful solos. And when the singer isn’t doing his best impression of a werewolf, he turns out to possess a pretty melodic and pleasing voice. The closest comparison I could make would be if you combined King Crimson, Van Der Graaf Generator and Cannibal Corse. It’s the band’s willingness to incorporate classic Prog aesthetics that makes the album most enjoyable.
One of the longer tracks, “When All is Black”, begins heavily enough, before morphing halfway through into an almost folksy metal ballad that brings to mind early 70s Genesis, with lyrical ideas that also ring of The Stones’s “Paint it Black.” With the singer even having a Peter Gabriel-ish inflection in his voice, one could almost imagine Genesis performing this if their music revolved around rotting sores, matricide and summoning the spirit of Beezlebub, instead of Carpet Crawlers and Watchers of Skies. In fact, the second track “Let Your Devil Come Inside” even has a xylophone solo, which added plenty of needed charm to counter balance the imagery of killing one’s own mother while inside the womb.
The biggest surprise for me though was the opening of “Into the Gates of Time.” The gentle plucking of an acoustic guitar, with the sinisterly lush orchestral backing of a mellotron, is so jarring in its tranquility that it jerks me into a happy place of sunshine and rainbows. This lasts but a few seconds before the rest of the band comes in with heavy psychedelic guitar and relentless drums shattering the harmony into oblivion. Right away I am whisked off through “the pale gates of time” to someplace not far removed from the Court of the Crimson King… only this place is far, far darker and less inviting. The song continues in a languid, hypnotic fashion, before morphing into this brief jazzey interlude, with a funky Weather Report-ish bass, that lasts oh so briefly. It’s the small moments that are like small slices of delight, to alleviate the relentlessness of “stepping into the darkest gates… amid the strings of time in the candelight”. And yet just when you think it’s over, the track continues with these amazing sounding moog-synthesizer effects amid the crashing instruments, and the song hasn’t even really taken off yet. More strange time signatures and polyrhythms occur, jerking you around until everything is engulfed in the nighttime sounds of crickets and cicadas, with the gentle strumming of a six string to send me peacefully off to sleep; my ears still ringing from the demented lullaby that just ensued.
The last song has a funereal feel to it due to what sounds like a pipe organ, although it’s still a headbanger of a number where the band gets to namecheck themselves in the lyrics a few times. It acts as a nice resolution to the near forty minutes of utter mayhem that has transpired. It ends with the singer whispering “Hail spirit, spirit NOiiiiiir” in your ear a few extra times for effect, before it comes to a close, leaving you with the feeling that someone, somewhere, is busy slaughtering a lamb in a pentagram while listening to this same album. I consider myself a pretty level-headed individual, but the music certainly put the fear of the occult within me, which I guess means the band were successful in their objective.
And that’s the story of my experience with Hail Spirit Noir’s Pneuma. I certainly got the impression that this group were seeking to do things with the genre that most other bands are too lame to even attempt. The variety in instruments, the technical skill and stylings of their playing, the sheer ballsiness of combining 70s avant-garde with no-holds-barred Satanism is what kept my interest for the relatively brief running time. It’s a real adrenaline rush of a record that leaves me feeling a little bit unclean and unholy, which means I couldn’t recommend this enough for black metal fans who are also interested in a bit more complexity.
Now if you’ll excuse me, I’m going to listen to some Enya for a bit.