Abigail Williams – Becoming

Author: Brendan Blake

Abigail Williams – Becoming
  • Artist: Abigail Williams
  • Album: Becoming
  • Year of Release: 2012
  • Country: USA
  • Label: Candlelight
  • Format: Jewelcase CD
  • Catalogue Number: CANDLE292CDSE

Abigail Williams, as I have mentioned before, are a band that attract a certain amount of internet ire. It’s not difficult to see why – their sound has shifted dramatically through sub-sub-genres of black metal throughout their career, seemingly tracking whatever happens to be flavour of the month at any given time, and as such have picked up accusations of being a “hipster black metal band”. I rather see them as, at worst, a kind of cultural barometer of what is happening in the contemporary black metal scene, and more generously as a band continuing to listen to and being influenced by bands producing new music and evolving over time as they try and find their own identity within the wider metal scene.

Firstly, to address the supposed issue of “hipster black metal”… I hate this term, as I think it’s an ignorant and lazy way of dismissing bands or their albums without even really giving each release a fair hearing on its own merits. There is a subset of metal fans that adhere to a kind of snobbery, bordering on musical fascism, which likes to dismiss bands because of their perceived lack of adherence to a kind of “purity” or musical honesty, trashing their albums based not on the quality of material produced, but rather their idea of what constitutes being “true” to the idea of black metal. Personally, I’d rather judge an album based on whether I enjoy listening to it or not, but excuse me for being a simple fan of music rather than a crusader.

To put this in context, Abigail Williams (or more specifically frontman Ken Sorceron, as the rest of the line-up changes with bewildering frequency) started as a sort of blackened metalcore band, before moving into the realms of symphonic black metal on their first full-length (In The Shadow Of A Thousand Suns) and then to an even more stripped down and raw black metal assault on their second (In The Absence Of Light). Now on their third full-length Becoming the band takes another step into emulating contemporaneous acts like Wolves In The Throne Room and Agalloch. Don’t get me wrong, this is in many ways highly derivative of superior bands, but it is nonetheless actually a really, really good album.

Opener ‘Ascension Sickness’ starts with the near-obligatory wind sounds of mid-period Bathory et al. but effectively strives towards the epic feel of early Emperor, and I detect a whiff of Hvis Lyset Tar Oss-era Burzum in the drumming during the ambient/acoustic build-up to its conclusion. The opener is largely typical for the progression of the rest of the album, with its mixture of tremolo-picked black metal riffing, quieter acoustic parts, some more traditional heavy metal sequences, and valuable contributions from their cellist (plus some bonus violin on the final track, ‘Beyond The Veil’). Sure, this is highly reminiscent of Wolves In The Throne Room, with vocal nods to the likes of Xasthur, but I fail to see how this is a bad thing. The closing track in particular deserves a place in black metal history as an – and I confidently predict rapidly forgotten – underrated classic.

Fans of the likes of Agalloch, Deafheaven, hell, even Primordial should find a great deal to enjoy in this release. To sum up – yes, it’s derivative, but let’s be honest here, there’s not a great deal of heavy metal out there that isn’t to some degree or other – almost part of the fun of reviewing stuff like this is spotting the musical references. This is a strong release from a fairly characterless band that will be ignored by many for reasons other than its actual content, and I think that’s a shame. Personally, I’ll be chalking it up as a positive – and for me, their best album to date.

Score: 75%

Abigail Williams – In The Absence Of Light

Author: Brendan Blake

Abigail Williams – In The Absence Of Light
  • Artist: Abigail Williams
  • Album: In The Absence Of Light
  • Year of Release: 2010
  • Country: USA
  • Label: Candlelight
  • Format: Jewelcase CD
  • Catalogue Number: CANDLE238CD

Quite early on into the great undertaking of BD Joyce and I to review our respective record collections alphabetically, I am forced to address a particular issue – that of the mediocre record. I personally have a massive soft spot for middle of the road black and death metal, which means I am more than happy to sit and listen to these middle-stream albums, say, over Sunday lunch (as I am doing now), without feeling the need to wax lyrical about their respective merits. I personally own a vast number of records that are not intrinsically terrible, and I am happy to pass time listening to, but ultimately contribute little to musical or genre history. Abigail Williams are one of those bands that fit into that bracket where if they were a support band to a superior act, or part-way up a festival bill, I’d probably go and check them out, but as a headline act are likely always going to be found somewhat wanting.

So I come to Abigail Williams’ second full-length release, In The Absence of Light. There has been another stylistic shift since their last album, with Ken “Sorceron” (yes, I know black metal pseudonyms are a bit infantile, but sticking to the Ken just highlights the silliness, and not in a good way) basically replacing the previous line-up and stripping out the symphonic (i.e. the keyboard) elements from the previous album and delivering a much more straightforward version of Euro melodic black metal. Emperor and Dimmu Borgir remain obvious touchstones, but to the band’s credit there is an increased emphasis on melodic soloing that recalls classic acts such as Maiden and Priest. While the masters have acknowledged their older influences (Emperor, Ihsahn (solo), Dimmu Borgir, Cradle of Filth for instance), it is pleasing to see these still permeating with younger acts.

This is a highly credible, well-executed piece of melodic black metal (no metalcore here, before anyone says it). It’s well-produced and I’m certainly not not enjoying listening to it, but I doubt it has the sticking power of anything classic, important, or groundbreaking, even within such a mini “sort of” genre as melodic black metal.

Score: 65%

Abigail Williams – Agharta

Author: Brendan Blake

Abigail Williams – Agharta
  • Artist: Abigail Williams
  • Album: Agharta
  • Year of Release: 2010
  • Country: USA
  • Label: Candlelight
  • Format: Jewelcase CD
  • Catalogue Number: CANDLE292CDSE

A stop-gap release, put out in the wake of their extensive 2009 US tour, initially released digitally, but subsequently as a bonus disc with their reasonably well-acclaimed In The Shadow Of A Thousand Suns. This is inevitably something of an inessential addition to what is arguably an inessential back catalogue of music, but that is not to say there is nothing of interest here.

Opener ‘I Am (God)’ is catchy enough, and almost a retrograde step from the band’s debut. Having leaned so heavily in the direction of Scandinavian symphonic black, it’s actually slightly refreshing that the band have attempted to repossess some of that thrashing melodic death metal of their first EP. Opting out of the standard pseudo-orchestral intro and launching into something vaguely reminiscent of mid-period Dissection, ‘I Am (God)’ devolves into a somewhat more chugging thrash-fest that I’m sure some will argue is a call-back to their metalcore roots, but in reality would not sound out of place on any modern thrash record. It all ends on a keyboard-driven segment of which Dimmu Borgir or Arcturus would be proud.

‘In Death Comes The Great Silence’ is closer to that cold Nordic sound of the debut, almost recalling Bathory at their most majestic in the closing minutes, but that is not to say anything on here is of anywhere near that calibre, reinforcing the view that Abigail Williams are a competent but resolutely third-tier black metal act. ‘Waiting For The Rain’ is a totally inconsequential weather-sound interlude with further Bathory acoustics for “atmosphere”, briefly making you forget that this isn’t a US band, and once again evoking the likes of British bands such as Cradle Of Filth. ‘Infernal Divide’ actually to me begins (briefly) with a Burzum vibe, before resorting to more Mayhem worship in the verse. It’s certainly not an unpleasant listen but hugely derivative of much greater bands, and seems to be incapable of deciding what it wants to be.

Unlike the interesting fusion of styles found on the Legend EP, the diversity on display here actually just suggests a lack of individual character. There’s plenty to like about this, but not to love, and as an EP is destined for the great trash-heap of “yeah, it was alright” metal EPs that no-one will remember in x number of years.

A note on editions: I have this as a bonus disc on the In The Shadow Of A Thousand Suns album. There is a bonus video track of ‘Into The Ashes’, available here: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=DBclCnzbQUM. It’s a classically rubbish extreme metal video that would have been scoffed at in the mid-90s, but in 2010 is kind of inexcusable. Not rubbish to a Hecate Enthroned or Ancient standard, but hey, what is?

Score: 65%

Abigail Williams – In The Shadow Of A Thousand Suns

Author: Brendan Blake

Abigail Williams – In The Shadow Of A Thousand Suns
  • Artist: Abigail Williams
  • Album: In The Shadow Of A Thousand Suns
  • Year of Release: 2008
  • Country: USA
  • Label: Candlelight
  • Format: Jewelcase CD
  • Catalogue Number: CANDLE292CDSE

What a difference a couple of years can make. The Legend EP proved somewhat divisive, with its mix of keyboard-driven black metal, Swedish-style melodeath, and metalcore moments – including oft-criticised melodic vocals. Abigail Williams’ first full-length jettisons wholesale the majority of the latter influences in favour of a much more straightforward symphonic black metal style, with wins and losses for the band in the process.

Sonically, the band has moved towards a much safer and more familiar European style of black metal – melodic as before, and clearly aiming towards the Scandinavian greats of Emperor, Dimmu Borgir, Covenant, Borknagar, and even Arcturus, although there is still the whiff of Cradle Of Filth in places (no bad thing). The Emperor connection is reinforced by the employment of Trym Torson on drums for about three-quarters of the record, and he does a predictably devastating job delivering the blastbeats. Ken Sorceron has decided to focus on vocals, while apparently also supplying bass; the bass is near-inaudible in the mix, and appears to purely follow the guitars, but that is hardly a criticism, as this is de rigeur for much black metal. His vocals stick to a fairly standard black metal rasp, although occasionally delving into deeper death metal growling, and notably on ‘A Thousand Suns’ bursting into a clean vocal far removed from that employed on Legend, and much closer to ICS Vortex of Dimmu/Arcturus/Borknagar, although not yet as accomplished. Still, the variety helps lift this from mere tedium to something slightly more colourful.

The keyboards are well-employed, but strangely high in the mix, although this is true of many symphonic/melodic black metal bands of the time – and indeed of the mid-90s. And I think this is where my issue with this album lies – I want to like it an awful lot more than I actually do. It’s well-produced, well-executed, and well-presented, but it just leaves me a bit cold, and not in a good way. It’s perfectly fine, and clearly worships at the feet of much greater bands – right down to the album cover, clearly invoking Emperor and Dissection albums of old. It’s certainly no disgrace, but call me heretical, I think I actually prefer their more all-over-the-place EP, which showed an intriguing mix of what could be done when you mix black metal, death metal, and metalcore. This is a good example of middle-of-the-road symphonic black metal, made by Americans a good 10 years after this form was perfected by the European black metal scene. Not in any way bad, just generic – and by 2008 already sounding dated, but not in a retro way.

Score: 60%

Abigail Williams – Legend

Author: Brendan Blake

Abigail Williams – Legend
  • Artist: Abigail Williams
  • Album: Legend
  • Year of Release: 2006
  • Country: USA
  • Label: Candlelight
  • Format: Jewelcase CD
  • Catalogue Number: CANDLE432CD Disc 1

I’m dimly aware that this band attracts a certain amount of scorn and derision on various internet forums (dimly aware, as I avoid those sorts of places because of the insufferable so-called purists that either police or troll them). Apparently the major complaint is their origin within the “metalcore” scene of the early 2000s. I’ve long had a problem with the term metalcore being used, both by journalists and internet pundits as a generic derogatory term – metalcore to me includes fantastic works by the likes of Agnostic Front and Cro-Mags in the 1980s, through to truly groundbreaking albums from Converge, Earth Crisis, Vision Of Disorder et al. in the mid ‘90s. The use of the term as a pejorative seems to refer to the likes of Killswitch Engage and Trivium (both of which are perfectly decent thrash/groove metal bands, with some added melodic singing). I don’t hear a great deal of hardcore punk in any of these bands, but maybe that’s just me. And don’t even get me started on the risible use of the term “mallcore” by the self-proclaimed scene police.

Why was that particular rant relevant to this release? Abigail Williams (named after one of the primary accusers in the Salem witch trials, and made famous to most high school students through Arthur’s Miller’s play The Crucible) were formed by one Ken Bergeron (latterly calling himself Sorceron; OK), who had played in a number of hardcore and metal bands prior to this.  And that “metalcore” influence is certainly still present in this, his first Abigail Williams release.  But the band is bucking a North American trend here by leaning over the pond and borrowing more heavily from the melodic death metal of At The Gates, the symphonic black metal of Dimmu Borgir, and most prevalently, UK-based gothic extremists Cradle Of Filth, a band for whom I will always have a deep and abiding teenage love.

Several tracks are re-purposed (and re-titled) from their demo days, and present a more-than-decent 20 minutes of aggressive, occasionally grandiose blackened death metal, with Dani Filth-esque screeches, mixed up with some lower-pitched death growling, and some Trivium-style melodic moments. The latter, which have attracted negative attention in particular, are fine for what they are and are noticeably absent from later releases. There is a fairly heavy use of keyboards, which add a degree of pomposity to proceedings and are certainly not as well integrated as the greatest examples of this style, but any band that invokes the spirit of Ihsahn of Emperor as frequently as they do cannot be wholly heading in the wrong direction. Sure there are metalcore breakdowns, but you know what, so did At The Gates and Suffocation, and that is not enough to write a band off. In this case, they work perfectly well, creating an interesting melange of US and European influences that this reviewer actually finds very palatable.

Screw the haters. This is good example of mid-2000s US symphonic black metal, with some added influences that at the time set them aside from the rest of the ATG-worshipping pack. Weirdly I actually find this more interesting as a release than some of their later, more typical records. But nice to see a young band playing with a variety of influences in an area that was becoming increasingly formulaic at the time.

A note on editions: I picked up the Candlelight 4CD From Legend To Becoming box set, of which this comprises the first disc; I’m reviewing them separately because they represent a significant evolution of the band’s sound over time.

Score: 72%