Dylan Neal’s other band, Botanist, might not be to everyone’s taste (hammered dulcimer black metal anyone?) but it certainly makes a change from listening to a very long line of black-metal-o-likes queuing up to deliver their take on something that is arguably in need of a bit more experimentation now and again. Have a spin and the jangling, repetitive shoegaze bursts of nature-inspired black metal (like Deafheaven meets A Forest of Stars) might just be enough to knock you off your perch long enough to prepare your psyche for Thief’s Map of Lost Keys. Both are provocatively avant-garde but Thief takes a more varied route into the world of ambient noise experimentation with a vibe unarguably rooted in 90s trip hop when such things were commonplace if very often not done this well. Indeed Neal’s promise to explore the ‘limitlessness of electronic music’ mixed with spellbinding, sacred ritual and medieval music he’s dug through the past to find sounds a lot like Massive Attack (for the slick approach to the electro-rhythms) and Enigma (the ethereal, eastern chants) with a dash of Mortiis (the industrial edge) soundclash.
This whole slippery endeavour is pleasingly full of tangential influences. The darkly beautiful Pyromancy is so steeped in 90s electronica and glides along in stuttering waves just as Desert Djinn sounds like it could have spun out of the latter new romantic days (anyone remember Duran Duran spin off Arcadia?). It’s an intriguing mix that then descends more completely into trip hop rawness as the album progresses into a sound so unmistakably influenced by that classic Bristol sound and there is no mistaking the heavily Mezzanine influence on tracks like the acidicly ambient Gouging Out A Cave In Empty Sky.
In a way it’s odd to find this on a label like Prophecy where I’m more used to the folk, ambient and metal influences being more to the fore. By the time you’re absorbing Without A Master’s electrifying breakbeat and shimmering chorus line, you’ll realise that this is metal only insomuch as the bleak edge running through the spine of Map Of Lost Keys is every bit as much metal and goth as it was an essential part of the psyche-splitting post-drug come down or sheer, outright depression of the 1990s taken to extreme by Bristol bands like Portlshead. But Thief never quite goes as far as those bands. So it’s tempting to ask what we are trying to achieve here as there is plenty of ground that has been covered before and will sound familiar to anyone who’s blasted out Mezzanine on repeat for hours. On the other hand, there is huge depth to Thief’s sound that is impressive to hear and, rather than languishing, and there is always a lining of white light that lingers and shines on what feels a lot more like artistic exploration of music and sound than it does the weight of oppressive emotion. An enjoyable trip which arguably could have gone further into the darkest depths but is at times fascinating to witness all the same with all its dabbling and weaving of some impressive aural forms.
(7.5/10 Reverend Darkstanley)