Being familiar with Howling Sycamore’s 2018 self-titled debut, I was ready for another challenging experience. That one was at its heart a mind-expanding progressive metal experience. Ominously ex Ephel Duath lead Davide Tiso promises something “slightly more challenging” and a “much denser collection of songs”.

“Mastering Fire”, which opens the album, lives up to the promise but is no means indigestible. The leaden dark backdrop is enhanced by the eccentric and deranged guitar ramblings, which anyone familiar with Ephel Duath will recognise. But it holds together. The impassioned and near insane vocals of Jason McMaster, of WatchTower and Dangerous Toys heritage, supplement the edgy tension. I was braced for a surreal experience with instrumentals conveying a disturbing world, and this is what we have. McMaster adds angst to the sinister air once again on “Departure” but it’s not all about him, as the music slows down and enters a pit of brain-twisting darkness. There’s something seedy and nasty about this. It’s not comfortable listening for sure.

The aural nightmare continues with “Initiation”. Howling Sycamore could be accused of losing the plot if there ever was one. The lyric “My blood starts flowing backwards” sums the inverse nature of this music. Yet there is a pattern. It’s just an abnormal one. The instrumental work and vocals combine to create a darkly alternative atmosphere of sharp emotions and fear. Harmonious and melodic it is not. Extreme and on the edge it is. The press release refers to “crude and sometimes brutal imagery”. That’s about right. “Second Sight” takes a slightly different tack. It is melancholic and gloomy, and perhaps unlike the earlier songs, the psychologically oriented lyrics are more overt. “Breathing suddenly feels like crawling in the mud, I cannot help but stare at the dark wheel of time passing by”, utters McMaster. This song sent shivers down my spine as McMaster reflects and the instrumentals support the mood vividly. “Raw Bones” then takes us back to organised chaos and is more striking for the mood than the words, as is “Tempest’s Chant” with its sinister atmospherics and variations. There is a message inside the extremity of production but I couldn’t in all honesty say what it is. What I could detect was a powerful sense of regret and melancholy. The final assault is the ten minute “Sorcerer”. It’s is uncharacteristically dynamic with the sounds of a saxophone enhancing the mood – a good way to end.

I had difficulty getting my head round “Seven Pathways to Annihilation”. In fairness, it was never intended to be easy listening and I didn’t expect that. I just felt that there was almost too much to absorb. The lyrics that I heard were really interesting but I lost the apparent psychological battle that was going on within them because of the overpowering and strongly shaped instrumentals. But it all added up to a form of insanity, and once again Howling Sycamore deserve credit for an interesting musical production.

(7/10 Andrew Doherty)