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Withershin - "Ashen Banners" (CD)

Withershin - "Ashen Banners" CD cover image

"Ashen Banners" track listing:

1. The Art of Ascension
2. Reap the Impurities
3. Reincarnation
4. Entering the Void
5. Lights in Zephyrs
6. One with Shadows
7. Disdain
8. New Era Holocaust
9. Never Condoned

Reviewed by on October 3, 2008

"'Withershin keep turning up the thunder, bending backwards to keep you from noticing the empty songwriting.'"

On their first full length, "Ashen Banners," this cthonian quartet from Stockholm play a murky, half conceived and undistinguished stew of generic black metal influences. Based on their wholly image oriented presentation and utter lack of humor, Withershin think their style is exciting and innovative. If their coming wasn't preceded by hundreds of far superior bands, other people would think that too. The problem is that it's not enough just to be a black metal band. You have to be good, too.

That image they're obsessed with, at least it works. Their production values are marked by stellar design, from the convoluted and tattoo worthy band logo to the grim and perfectly framed promotional portrait. (Band. Decaying brick farmhouse. Tall grass. Wind. Metal.) Holding the booklet in your hands, watching the light squirm over its heavy, dull matte finish, it's easy to imagine this is first rate professional stuff, until you start listening to it.

Withershin don't have the songwriting power to give their fast bits any sort of personality. Since these compositions are almost entirely fast bits, this is an issue. Songs like "Reap The Impurities" and "Never Condoned" can't decide whether to unload precise riffs or overwhelm with blazing tempo. Instead, they try to go both ways, and end up boring and incoherent. Even when "Reap The Impurities" pulls out (so avant-garde) an undistorted solo, all it showcases is the laziness and creative drought on this platter. Say what you want about Dragonforce, but at least they can hold your interest for 15 seconds.

Withershin's astonishingly weak bottom end does the bland guitar no favors. Their bassist, Hex, does little more than breathe easy while doubling up on the guitar lines. Not only should he have picked a cooler name ("Sacarcoth" would have been nice, or "Nilosian") he could have bothered treating his bass like the full-fledged and expressive instrument it is. The drummer, Zek, isn't much better. He's capable of playing interesting music, as there are some remarkable moments on "Lights In Zephyrs," powerful staccato fills stacked end-on-end, but the ideas are never developed.

The mellow, atmospheric guitar near the end of "One With Shadows" briefly sounds interesting, but only because it's the album's quietest moment. Once again, Withershin are too metal to pull together with a melody. Their quiet approach is just a pared down version of their loud approach: a bunch of notes that sit there and evoke nothing.

Similarly, the clean vocals in "Disdain" appear interesting, because they're next to so many boring things. But somehow, the band doesn't notice there's clean singing going on, and so their formula never receives any variation. Besides, the vocal performance doesn't fit the song, because it sounds like the big number from the medieval French villain in a Disney movie. When the vocalist returns to his generic version of the classic black metal rasp-scream, it's genuinely relieving.

Again and again, Withershin get into the same repetitive and bludgeoning mood. When it's done right, that style grabs you like a squirming kitten in a chainmail fist, but for these guys it's just a matter of playing the same simple phrase over and over and over. Unlike their more talented and innovative brethren, they never bother with variations in the songwriting to unbalance you and keep the trance going. The bottom line is that if you're looking for thrilling, groundbreaking work in this genre, pick up an album by Krallice, Nachtmystium, Opeth or Akercocke instead.

All through this album, Withershin keep turning up the thunder, bending backwards to keep you from noticing the empty songwriting. The entire group is nearly always content to play the roles of generic black metallers. They need some inspiration and until they find it, their whole schtick is just a meaningless pose.

Highs: Eight seconds of half-good guitar solo on "Lights in Zephyrs."

Lows: No unique or memorable moments whatsoever.

Bottom line: Not much more than navel-gazing elitism unleavened by creativity or effort.

Rated 2 out of 5 skulls
2 out of 5 skulls

Rating Description
Rated 5 out of 5 skulls Perfection. (No discernable flaws; one of the reviewer's all-time favorites)
Rated 4.5 out of 5 skulls Near Perfection. (An instant classic with some minor imperfections)
Rated 4 out of 5 skulls Excellent. (An excellent effort worth picking up)
Rated 3.5 out of 5 skulls Good. (A good effort, worth checking out or picking up)
Rated 3 out of 5 skulls Decent. (A decent effort worth checking out if the style fits your tastes)
Rated 2.5 out of 5 skulls Average. (Nothing special; worth checking out if the style fits your taste)
Rated 2 out of 5 skulls Fair. (There is better metal out there)
< 2 skulls Pretty Bad. (Don't bother)