Most debut albums tend to be rough-and-ready and recorded in a day by the lead singer’s dodgy Uncle Frank who happens to own a beat-up old eight-track. Well, perhaps not quite that punk, but they do usually veer towards being more of a “bish-bash-bosh” affair – they certainly don’t usually take eight months to record and emerge with the kind of sprawling, cinematic layering that To Sail Black Waters features – three cheers for engineer / producer Juan Urteaga’s (Testament, Machine Head) patience and perseverance. But then everything about Secrets Of The Sky is unusual.
They hail from Oakland, California yet have been signed by Italian record label Kolony Records who have been specialising in “recruiting lost souls since 2008” (their roster includes artists based in far-flung fields such as Australia, Andorra and Jordan). SOTS consist of six members, half of whom contribute with multiple instruments – their lead vocalist, for instance, also plays keyboards and violin. Most mind-boggling of all is the music itself which draws on a wide range of inspirations and still manages to intricately weave these genres together to create something truly fresh and exciting.
Best described as an atmospheric, doomy, subversively black, richly progressive and bollock-janglingly heavy metal band, they mostly meander across the exploratory black paths of Enslaved and Ihsahn but don’t seem afraid to thread unusual sonic touches that evoke the output of artists like Vangelis, Giorgio Moroder, Cult Of Luna, Isis, Opeth and Agalloch. The monstrously huge and intricately-layered production is ocean-deep and rich with the multi-part vocals proving the vital finishing touches. It’s a rare thing to find 5 different forms of vocal attack yet here Garett Gazay treats us to his room-shaking roar, a gravel-toned scathing, an emotion-tugging clean and a menacing whisper. The fifth comes completely out of the blue – a haunting crystalline chanting; an emotional clarion call that will draw tears.
Wading through we get an “Echo Beach”-riff and an oblique Machine Head-esque lick that both shake up the stormy wilderness of “Winter”. A crushing triple-guitar death rattle opens “Decline” but this soon shifts into a strong folky vocal sequence. Constantly shifting, it’s not long before we get a burst of something wholly more epic, almost Bladerunner-esque, as a proggy twin-synth set kicks in. Elsewhere, we get the hearty dark tones of “Sunrise”, a pitch black doom skewed by a switch-up into a softer shoegaze motif.
Star of the show is the 11-minute “Black Waters”. With a title like that how could you not expect to hear Opeth in this, yet here Secrets Of The Sky fearlessly dive into their subject matter of death with real abandon and without restriction. A whispered vocal over plinking minor chords gently pad their way into what turns out to be a dangerously-deep groove – necks will snap. This is the belly of the beast and it will grip you like a vice, carving you open for that heart-wrenching finish.
With surprises at every turn you’ll continually find yourself expecting this wildly original album to jar you by twisting the knife too much and yet these four songs, no more are needed, flow like a dream, drawing you further and further below the surface. It is a debut like no other and marks these Californians out as real forgotten heroes. They may have slipped through the major label net the first time but that won’t happen again now that this behemoth of a record is finally ready to drop.
(9/10 John Skibeat)