It has been nearly four years since French ‘post’ metal exponents Dirge released their monumental ‘Hyperion’ album. For this scribe, that album was a bolt from an unexpected quarter – 2014 was a strong year for releases, yet an obscure troupe of atmospheric metal artisans smashed onto the radar with what was (to these ears) a magnificently crafted blend of crushing rhythms, punishing riffs and glittering, ethereal atmospherics. It made my top ten for that year for sure.

Since then, it’s been a little quiet – so it was with more than a little interest that I sat up and paid attention when ‘Alma Baltica’ was announced. The band have labelled it as an EP, however at five tracks and 35 minutes in length, it’s one of those situations whereby the lines between album and extended player become ever more blurred. And to be honest, in this digital day and age, does anyone really care that much any more about such distinctions?

Whatever, the most interesting element of this release is the complaint, about-turn departure from any form of metal. Instead, ‘Alma Baltica’ presents an experimental, instrumental approach that zeroes in on Dirge’s sense of expansive, absorbing ambience, intending to highlight more than ever before that beneath the bludgeon, there is a group of guys with a highly attuned sense of billowing, melodic hypnosis.

And it works beautifully, frankly. The ebb and flow of subtle banks of synths and distinctly ‘non-cheesy’ electronic swirl under a repeated clean guitar motif on opener ‘Alma’, hinting at a storm that never truly threatens to break. ‘Red Dawn Tibesti’ follows with a more industrialised soundscape, sampled and ultra-processed percussion twinning with some abrasive synth bass to create a weightier piece. As ever, synths swell and some sampled ethereal female vocals give the whole track more than a hint of Dead Can Dance in one of their darker moods.

The piece builds to a colossal, layered finale with the myriad synth pads bringing to mind Black Dog Productions more epic/ambient moments. ‘Black Shore’ is shorter, more lo-fi and pared back. A lone overdriven guitar chimes over unsettling, glitchy field samples, leading into the similarly structured but more expansive ‘Baltica (Sine Time Reoscillated)’. Again, the guitar chimes dolefully – a lone and bleak voice against ever-escalating synth patterns. Here, one is reminded of the bleaker moments of Slowdive’s underrated ‘Pygmalion’ album with the perfect fusion of bleakness, poignancy and reflection.

The EP finishes with the billowing climax of ‘Pure’ in which frankly lush waves of synth and droning guitars build into a crescendo of enveloping melody. The main refrain is truly splendid, again reminding of Black Dog Productions (specifically ‘Kissing Someone Else’s D.O.G.’).

‘Alma Baltica’ is a surprisingly adept and engaging piece of work. Normally metal bands tend to fall flat on their faces when attempting something like this, yet Dirge have not only pulled it off but pulled it off in style. This is a release which demonstrates a real understanding of atmospherics and musicality, delivered with subtlety and deftness. Approach with an open mind and be impressed.

(9/10 Frank Allain)