Uniqueness is something that is often lost in the musical landscape. Pop acts constantly rip each other off, as well as all those that came before. Rock & roll, country, metal - it's the same in every genre. The differences are much more subtle sometimes, but bands try to put their own "stamp" on the music, even if what they're doing has been done to death already. The treat is when a band comes along and does something, that, though they bear similarities to what's come before them, they put enough of their own "stamp" on the formula or genre aesthetic to say they're doing something new or unique. Norway's In Grief may not be the most original band out there, but they are putting a semi-unique stamp on the death metal sound.
What In Grief does have that makes them stand out is a superb debut that combines all the right elements with such balance, style and panache that you wonder what woodwork they came out of. These guys are incredibly tight, have a distinctive sound that reveals more elements with repeated listens, and ultimately, comes up with a debut release that stands out from the crowd because of its sheer quality and listenability. That doesn't mean this is a "fluffy" record; far from it. It's not an immediate album, and it takes several listens to truly pay off. However, there are elements from the first listen that will reward listeners, and the rewards continue as more time is devoted to the album.
With the amount of near-hyperbole I just spouted, it must be said that intro track "Darkening Horizon" is a bit of a generic, quasi-"cinematic" intro, not unlike the atmospheric intro to any melodic death or symphonic metal album. The difference here is that it's not all that distinctive. It's just keyboard atmospherics, symphonic drum/cymbal work (complete with big cymbal crashes & timpani), and the like. It's not a throwaway track, per se, but compared to what follows it, or compared to some of the heavyweights of bombastic, symphonic album intros (Rhapsody, Bal-Sagoth), this is a bit tame. Still, I'm guessing understated is what the band was intending, so it works for what it is. The intro fades gently into "I Am", with some nice keyboard atmospherics, clean guitar, light cymbal touches, and an interesting effect that sounds like burning fire, and screaming voices in the background. Then the music picks up a bit with more drum & cymbal work, no more fire effect, and just builds from there to fade in a heavily distorted guitar sound in the mix. When the song kicks in near the 1:30 mark, you know you're in for a melodic death metal treat. The riffing isn't overly complex, but it shows the proficiency of the players, and the lightly effecte vocals work well. I like the "phased" guitar grind that presents after the primary verse section. The chorus has a nice layering of death vocals and a low-end clean vocal that sounds as though it's "off in the distance". The 2nd verse has a great layered death vocal effect that sounds like it's double-tracked, but one of the tracks is highly effected, giving it a nice sci-fi type of feel. The song circles back to the intro riff again with a nice high-pitched keyboard sound and winding riff, then down to a semi-spoken word bridge with driving riff and some nice atmospheric elements in behind. The keyboard solo that follows is great; very subtle at the start, then increasing in complexity and retaining a nice melodic quality. There is some great double-bass and cymbal work going on here, and then a great guitar solo with some wah-wah effect and a lot of melodic elements to it. We are treated to the "phased" grinding guitar sound near the close of the song as the death vocals bring us back to the sound of fire with a thunderous blast and a brief fade-out. "Invited War" starts with the sound of a car starting, some interesting atmospherics, an explosion sound, people screaming in the background, and a distorted voice singing a middle-eastern melody briefly before the guitar, drums, bass and keyboard come storming in arond the 30-second mark. The riff here is great; it's very rhythmic in nature, and the atmospheric keyboard complements it well. A bit of complexity added to the riff after the initial piece, followed by a fade-in of death vocals into the verse. The slight echo effect on the vocals is a nice touch, and the double-tracked vocals in some spots works well. The clean vocals are nicely layered w/ a subtle death vocal in the chorus, and sounds great against the backdrop of melodic crunching metal. Keyboard atmospherics continue to play a subtle part here, and become a key element of the sound. The riffing changes slightly nearing the 3-minute mark to a very melodic riff, then back into the melodic chorus. There's a nice instrumental section with a simple, yet effective riff, and some good keyboard elements being thrown in before introducing the guitar solo. The solo is great, combining the right balance of speedy picking, melodicism, and just overall technicality. The speed picks up a bit for a short spell nearing the 5-minute mark, then slows back down again to allow the solo to flash out a bit before going back to the clean-sung chorus. One final verse section to another chorus (with heavily effected vocals) and some nicely layered death vocals to bring the song to a close over the chunky intro riff again.
"Modern Truth" begins with a ticking clock sound, and radio static as the clean guitar and keyboard sounds fade in during the first 40 seconds. Then things pick up with double-bass pounding, bass guitar, and heavy riffing. Then nearing the 1-minute mark, we get some nice speedy solo picking and some "big" keyboard sounds in the background. The riffs here are very thick, and sound great against the rest of the instrumental backdrop. Suddenly the riffing stops, returns to a cleanly picked guitar and atmospheric keyboard sound again, picks up to riffing again just after the 2-minute mark with death vocals in tow. The riffing & sound here is highly melodic, but retains the heaviness and power that death metal should have. I like the layering of the crunchy riffing here with the high-pitched picking for the chorus; it gives it that touch of extra melody. Then it comes down again to the clean guitar & keyboard atmospherics for a few respite measures until fading in the snare drum to a full-blast heavy verse again. After a 2nd run through the chorus we are treated to a crunchy bridge with a "single syllable" vocal delivery where each measure may have only 2 words or syllables grunted/growled over the riffing. Then back to the melodic chorus again with added keyboard. The melodic riffing & keyboard atmospherics continues with double-bass & great cymbal work to finish out the song. The title track "Deserted Soul" has a real science fiction feel to it, beginning with some interesting atmospheric effects, then very quickly into off-kilter rhythmic guitar riffing and "80's sci-fi" keyboard atmospherics. The drum work keeps time very well here, and helps to move things along. The verse is heavy and driving, and has a nice combination of drum work, guitar riffing, keyboard effects, and vocals. The chorus has a subtly layered clean vocal that is well harmonized, and an added death growl for contrast. I like the rhythmic riffing after the chorus and the nice keyboard sound that accompanies that. The "punchy" snare sound is great here as well. After the 2nd verse and chorus there is a stunning keyboard solo that has a bit of a Dream Theater-like quality to it, but retains its own identity. Another run through the chorus, and a return to the "sci-fi" sounds and atmospherics to close out the song.
"In the End" begins with a nice "hum" sound in the background, and nicely picked clean guitar rhythm, and a bit of a "bass hum" underneath it all. The keyboard atmospherics are very subtle, but add a nice texture. Nearing the 1-minute mark the metal kicks in w/ a nice melodic riff, cool keyboard line and a long death growl. The riffing changes slightly to a real chunky thing w/ some cool keyboard effects & some nice double-bass & cymbal work leading into the verse, which takes things back down to clean guitar, keyboard, subtle bass guitar, and some nice drum/cymbal work. The vocals are semi-spoken word, then into death vocals as the pre-chorus blows in w/ heavy riffing, double-bass and full-speed instrumentation. The chorus is melodic, and has a nice guitar sound/feel to it. The lick at the end of the chorus is very melodic, and leads back to a heavy 2nd verse. There's a bit of layered clean vocals at the end of the verse that have this "background" feel to them that is nice, and gives a bit of atmospheric touch. Once again we have a super-melodic chorus, and the melodic lick at the end, transitioning into a melodic bridge, then into a contrasting moment of quiet piano w/ sound effects of burning fire & people screaming (like in "I Am"). Great solo work right after the piano interlude as well, with very melodic lines, some great harmonized dual-guitar lead work, and just overall fitting lead playing. More great drumming & riffing going on here as well, adding the perfect backdrop for the leads as they're picked out. This transitions back into the melodic chorus riff again for a few measures, then into the actual chorus again nearing the last minute of the song. The melodic post-chorus lick returns to help close things out, with the keyboard lending a hand mimicking the guitar lick as the song winds down to the end w/ the sound of rain. The final track, "Weak" opens with a nice bass hum, interesting keyboard sounds, and a dark atmospheric sound that reminds one of the more intense parts of a Role Playing Game like Final Fantasy or something of that ilk. Then comes a deep spoken voice and some symphonic elements like cymbal crashing, timpani rolls, and keyboard sounds that mimic a choir. At about the 1-minute mark the metal comes roaring in, with a plodding double-bass rhythm quickly turning to double-time, melodic riffing that turns into fast crunchy riffing, and keyboards that go from light & airy to brooding. Things stay heavy yet melodic as the verse kicks in with layered death vocals, good drum work, and then into a highly melodic chorus with cleanly sung vocals that have a slightly "distant" feel to them, and a bit of layering for effect. The post-chorus transition is great with melodic riffing, nice keyboard sounds, and great drumming. The 2nd verse has chunky riffing, and layered extreme vocals that have a nice effect. The subtle low-end death vocal underscoring the guitar lick after the 2nd chorus is a cool effect, and sounds great in headphones. Then some great guitar & keyboard dual soloing happens, and gives way to a full-on keyboard solo, then melodic guitar solo at around 6 minutes. This fades out to a soft keyboard backdrop & back to the symphonic elements present in the intro track "Darkening Horizon" before the heaviness returns with melody in tow. This ties together well with the intro, and brings the album full circle in a sense. Near the 8-minute mark we're back to a verse, with a higher-pitched extreme vocal, reminding almost of a symphonic black metal kind of feel, which works well here. More nice soloing shows up in the last minute of the song, bringing things melodically & technically to showcase the players' abilities right up to the end, then a sudden stop.
In Grief hasn't created a unique recipe here. What they have done is taken all the right elements of progressive and melodic death metal & put just enough of their own spice & flavoring on it to make it a different dish. It doesn't have to be wholly unique because it does enough on its own to stand on its own. My only qualms are rather slight. The editing of the tracks seems a bit lazy, as there's a lot of "white space" at the end of each track, and there are a couple instances where it seems like there's "tape cut" noise after the track is done or into the next track, as if this were still a demo. The production quality elsewhere is fantastic, so this was likely an oversight. My other complaint is that in the layering of the instrumentation, there are times I feel the vocals are a tad buried in the mix. It's not a huge concern, but there are times when I wish I could hear the vocals more. Otherwise, the mix is great - not too compressed, but still with power. Also, it's heavy without being overbearing, and melodic without losing the crunch factor that death metal should have. In short, this is overall a well-produced effort. I can't say they sound like anyone else, though comparisons have been made to Opeth, Soilwork, Amon Amarth, and Katatonia. They don't really sound like any of those bands, per se, but those are touchstones. If you like progressive extreme metal, melodic death metal, or just extreme metal in general, this is a release you should not pass up. Highly recommended.