After five long years, Drakonis fans can breathe more than just a sigh of relief when Blessed by Embers is released on the third of April. Formed back in 2015, Drakonis has only released a handful of E.P.s thus far, but have spent time honing and perfecting their inventive, energetic blend of black and death metal during a plethora of highly visual, immersive, and memorable shows that have cemented their status locally and beyond as one of the most impressive bands of either respective genre. And all without having released an album. The wait has most definitely been worth it. Blessed by Embers is an audacious, emotionally-charged blitzkrieg of extreme music that keeps no secrets about what inspired it, but is original and authentic enough to stand out as one of the most accomplished debut albums of the last ten years.
The album opens with what at first seems to be a generic, obligatory atmospheric scene-setting initiation focusing on keys, but almost immediately it’s apparent that this introduction to the dark world of Drakonis is well-balanced; the melody is permeated subtly with a sense of tension and a touch of dread that lurk under the surface. As the notes get louder, a darkly angelic voice ascends from the shadows, beautiful but melancholic, not unlike the song of a siren leading people to their death. The result is a haunting, pitch-perfect emanation that would fit perfectly well over the hair-raising final scene of Robbert Egger’s dreadful masterpiece The Witch. Crucially, the introduction doesn’t overstep its welcome. As soon as it peaks, it’s literally blasted away by furious drumming and even more furious vocals. Threnody is a statement of intent. And an incredibly bold one, at that. The combination of relentless, hold-on-to-your-soul speed with enough time signature changes to prevent it from getting stale, as well as the contrast between the venomous, spiteful vocals and the reprise of the spectral lament from the start of the track, all culminate in a stunning, blinding, deafening piece of music. It was a no-brainer to release this single first, ahead of the album’s release.
A minuscule amount of breathing room is permitted in the form of an intriguing acoustic passage played From the Eternal, before the inevitable blast beats and tremolo guitars are unleashed. Just when it feels like a rehash of the track before it, the tempo drops, giving way to effective choral singing that acts as a foundation for Steve Reynolds’ slower but no less ferocious vocal delivery. What happens next is one of many examples of something that sets Drakonis apart from a lot of their genre contemporaries. In just five masterful notes, a sense of pure and potent yearning is invoked. It’s this mastery of melody, emotion, and composition that elevates Blessed by Embers higher than the most typical of black or death metal records. At one point, Stephanie Dickey’s sombre bass carries this emotional main riff for a few bars, adding a few gloomy flourishes against Lee McCartney’s measured drum accompaniment. The track later uses an effective backing chant that acts as a response to the chorus’s infectious scream, to convincingly evoke a reciprocated incantation of a black mass, something that would lend well to live performances.
Along with All is Still and As They Rot, Fear of the Wretched is a remnant from previous releases. Arguably, the album wouldn’t have suffered too much had these tracks been dropped in favour of more new material, considering they’ve already established crowd favourites at live shows, but they do highlight how far the band have come since their inception, as well as the superbly impressive mixing and mastering capabilities of Saul McMichael. Wretched is sounding better than ever in this Blessed incarnation. It’s even tighter this time ‘round, featuring razor-sharp picking from McMichael and Tommy Hewitt, blast beats so fast your brain might have difficulty processing the double kicks, and an absolutely exquisite guitar solo. Considering you can count the album’s solos on half a hand, they’re something Embers could have done with more of, but conversely, their rarity serves to improve their value.
Considering Blessed by Embers runs longer than even At the Heart of Winter, it often risks veering into the too-much-of-the-same-thing territory, especially for the uninitiated to whom its nuances and subtleties haven’t yet been revealed. However, this isn’t the case, as each track contains elements that satisfyingly distinguishes it from the others.
The title track is monumental. Effective use is made of subtle, low register choral vocals, which lends to the surprisingly strong emotional quality that exists throughout the song, culminating in a passage that genuinely has to be heard to be believed. The haunting melody of the guitars is accompanied by an incredibly evocative lamentation in the form of Sarah Prior’s melodic, staccato synth keyboard that would have dwelled perfectly on Old Morning’s Dawn. Together they create a chest-swelling, soul-stirring passage that lays the foundation for one of the most impressive screams ever to have been recorded. Genuinely. There is so much anguish, so much raw, powerful emotion in Reynolds’ cry that it just sends a sadness washing over all that hear it. It is deeply, deeply affecting. In the best possible way.
The excellently titled Of Dusk and Pyre benefits from the inclusion of even more subtle synth and low choral chanting, this time more harmoniously embedded amongst the chaos of the riffs and hammering drums. Toward the song’s conclusion, there is a brilliant false ending, before the voice of none other than Jim Jones, of Jonestown Massacre infamy, is heard addressing his manipulated, fearful colony of hundreds, discussing life, death, agony, and everything in between. Recorded before and during the deaths of over nine hundred people, including around three hundred children, this clip adds a soberingly sinister quality to the song and the album as a whole. And it works perfectly. Especially as it ties seamlessly with the record’s concept and themes of The Wretched and cult behaviour.
As They Rot is one of the more joyless, relatively unexciting tracks on Blessed by Embers, which says a lot about the overall quality of the release, especially when you remind yourself that this is a debut album. It opens with the sound of flies, an effective and audibly gruesome start. But the mid-paced effort meanders along almost reluctantly, occasionally upping the stakes before dragging them back, threatening to throw off the overall momentum of the album until it enters a patch of unholy Immortal-Esque riffing, and ends on an intense bassline.
All is Still starts with an isolated but thickly atmospheric guitar passage that is then later reversed and played backwards to end the track, a genre-nod that works well. The high point of the song is slow, almost grooving pinch-harmonic inflected riff so heavy and headbangable that it might end up breaking necks when played live.
Drakonis’s debut ends with An Anthem of Ashes, another stellar, poignant, well-balanced track. A wistful acoustic guitar strums along before a sorrow-drenched lead washes over like the “gentle rain” mentioned in the song. Slower than the tracks that came before it, it marches onward under the burden of its own emotional weight. And it carries itself well. It is a heart-rending reminder to “pray for the moon, pray for the stars” as we make our way to “the sweet death that brings us peace”. As if making up for the general lack of solos, there’s an uplifting thirty-seconds-long guitar solo near the end that deftly soars before being delicately weaved around the vocals when they return. It’s sensational.
Drakonis wear their influences on their collective sleeves. They’ve taken elements and strands from a range of predecessors and churned and mixed them together in a bubbling cauldron (using tears instead of traditional spring water), to create a brutally cohesive, emotionally mature, and musically impressive debut album that should satisfy even those fans who have been patiently waiting the five years since they first laid eyes and ears on the band.
When Jim Jones died, near his body was a carving that read, “Those who do not remember the past are condemned to repeat it.” Drakonis remember the past. They choose to repeat it anyway. But they make it their own.
Blessed by Embers is released on streaming platforms, physical CD, and a collector’s edition tin on April 3rd 2020. It is available here: https://www.hostilemedia.net/shop
Review: Mark Russell
Photography: Kerri Clarke