SOTSWith Secrets Of The Sky’s sophomore effort they really have thrown caution to the wind, tweaking their delivery and content to fully realise an album with one continuous, free-flowing storyline. It picks up from the very point where their scintillating debut, To Sail Black Waters, left us. Thus, after the rigours of an ocean-bound journey, we find ourselves tramping from the shore along the Pathway which leads down into echoing caverns where cackling witches lie in wait to torture and burn the emotions from us.

Thus, with something akin to the storytelling of Agalloch, Anathema or Alcest whilst drunk on Sabbathian doom and Opethian melancholy, the Californian quintet unveil an opus with cold, bleak beginnings leading to later forays into their harder, darker material.

Now, 13 tracks for a band like SOTS would indicate a complete change of tack. It is with some relief, then, that once you’ve got past the superb concept of having seven short, tension-building, feeder sound recordings then you’re left with a mere six full-lengths to pore over. Yes, it’s a gimmick to separate one type from the other but at least they don’t hide them behind complex titles, opting for simple Roman numeral formatting instead.

Following the introductory crashing of waves upon a shoreline (which also neatly bookends the album), they serve up “Three Swords” and our first taste of Garett Gazay’s clean vocal, which rises from amidst a swathe of minor keys, starting at a whisper, continuing through to strident song and finally into his more recognisable blackened shriek and roar. Initially the light, melancholic tone can make the clean vocal feel tentative, weak and, dare it be said, tuneless and at times overtly preachy. It’s hard to ignore the way they baby-step you into the album with dull, cyclical phrases such as “lying on a river” (from “Three Swords”), or “love this [life]” and “I don’t care anymore” (from “Another Light”) but they are balanced by the simple joys provided by the shrewd folk metal crunch of “Angels In Vine” and the brilliantly dark split-delivery of “Garden Of Prayers”, with the latter-half subtly hinting at the enigmatic delivery of Palms’ Chino Moreno.

Echoing footsteps upon a stone path, via the obstacles of trickling water, inhuman chuntering, industrial clanking and mantra chanting, have somehow led us inevitably to a roaring fire and the gloriously-consuming, black-edged “Fosforos”. It’s the signal for all-hell to let loose and the change of pace and instant freedom that comes with it is palpable. The chugs become more fervent and the screech and roars unhinged as the flames lick around our feet. Then, with a final flourish they power home their masterpiece, “Eternal Wolves”, which effortlessly combines the album’s constituent parts to create a single, unforgettable microcosm that positively glows from within with sweeping builds, chiming threads and poisonous barbs right through to that final guillotine moment.

There’s no doubting the sonic shift from the threatening, gritty malice of their debut to something more subtle, mournful and introspective. In its final moments, the picture is revealed in glorious monochrome. There are also definite bonus points here for ignoring the usual charade of tracklisting the heavier material up front, and thereby adhering to the ‘journey’ and the gradual unveiling of the concept. Consequently, the album flows beautifully through all of its rises and falls. Sure, it isn’t without its weaknesses, but it’s a Pathway I’d heartily recommend you walk.

(7.5/10 John Skibeat)