Empyrean Vessel - With Ashen Hearts at the Sign of Dawn (Self-released)

A glistening, understated debut—and excellent opportunity to serve up a bona fide entree, revisiting my old bugaboo of geography in black metal (BM). It is unclear where exactly Empyrean Vessel's anonymous “M.” comes from—assuming, of course, that they are not the M. of Los Angeles' Lamp of Murmuur. Still, a fairly reliable Bandcamp follow contributed a tasty blurb on the Bandcamp page of this new demo, With Ashen Hearts at the Sign of Dawn, comparing the sound to New York BM favorites Anicon, only "from Finland." But are Empyrean Vessel actually Finnish? Even if the Bandcamper wasn't identifying their nationality with any certainty, what was she identifying in the music—and, most importantly, is it any good? 

It may actually be a rich and fortunate ambiguity that Empyrean Vessel haven't advertised their being from Finland or any other country. Paired with this suggestion that something about them hails “from Finland,” the “N/A” now up on their Encyclopedia Metallum entry invites us to listen to With Ashen Hearts in both specific and nonspecific geographic contexts. The situation reminds me of last year's scandal surrounding the Brazilians in Frummyrkrið cosplaying Icelandic black metallers, only with lower stakes and a happier ending. For even if that band's Dauðans Myrkri was a fine debut, their gambit was a sad and unsuccessful one—not only insofar as they were summarily found out and heckled by suspiciously nation-obsessed gatekeepers, but also because their sound featured a more posty flair often explored by American black metal acts (like Falls of Rauros, most recently). Icelanders are obviously as capable of making that noise as anyone else, but ideally, cosplay should hone to the source material. It’s like Frumps came out looking like a (brunette) Katy Perry, trying to be Björk.

Finnish, American, or something else entirely, Empyrean Vessel demonstrate a greater capacity for transatlantic code switching. The Anicon comparison draws a line between two relatively burly takes on the more forward-thinking and textured BM now associated with new-world outfits in the United States (see also Ustalost, Mycorrhizae) and, increasingly, Brazil (Kaatayra, Vauruvã). But for me at least, the blood and guts of Exegeses sat in deceptively complex, high-wattage riffs. Don’t get me wrong: With Ashen Hearts has some cool guitar work, too, especially in the almost dainty arpeggios played high up on the neck. Still, I’d locate the release’s Aniconian heft—and its Finn-ish identity—in the vocals more than anywhere else. M’s gruff and almost wolfish leads tap into the aggravated, lower-range style popularized by influential Finnish BM bands from the 90s. But there’s more emotional range in With Ashen Hearts’s tight 22 minutes than you’ll find in the entire discography of a band like, say, Beherit—whose record of collaborating with Nazis makes them hard to enjoy, anyway.

Listen to the standout opening track, especially, and its healthy dose of Grendelian pathos. M's refreshingly discernible delivery had me actually looking up the lyrics, which left me burning for a full-length record to wander Empyrean Vessel's apocalyptic concept. Think about it: What ghoulish wonders and triumphs might lay on the other end of this strangely mournful, foreboding, yet rousing rallying cry? Whether it emanates from Finland or somewhere else, it should reach and appeal to discerning black-metal fans worldwide:

Beat your plowshares into spearheads
and mark your flesh with the symbols
of your will and fortitude.
Seek the aid of unclean spirits
and bind them under our Sign.

"May you wither and crumble;
"may you hunger as we have hungered;
"may we die, yet rise again,
"to die and rise again."