I came into this one with a good deal of cynicism – an instrumental symphonic metal album that portrayed the journey of a narwhal to the Hadal Zone (the bottom of the ocean). Ggggrrrreeeeeaaaattttt…
Before I dove into the album, I checked out the the notes that went along with it:
“For more than just ocean lovers, Nomadic Narwhal takes a new path in sonic storytelling. With a cocktail of modern metal, underwater sound design, and cinematic drama; Nomadic takes you on a journey from the beaches to parts unknown. While keeping plenty of room open to interpretation, it is clear that this is not a guided tour. This is an oceanic odyssey shared between artist and listener.
The fourth and final part of the Fathoms album from Nomadic Narwhal marks the reaching of the sea floor however not the end of the journey. With the signature open to interpretation approach, it is safe to say there is plenty to explore in this sonic trek to the bottom. From striking choral harmonies to underwater sound design we are transfixed between the shifting of tectonic plates and the depths of the deepest trenches there is to offer.”
I held my breath and plunged into what awaited.
“Atlas” had me swimming in the bubbles of the ocean immediately. This was followed by bright synth sections and the heaviest of guitar riffs. This was a very pleasant surprise. Perhaps this album wouldn’t be new age bonking of whales after all! There was then a shift to a more intricate sound, with what went before as the cornerstone. The next riff REALLY got my foot tapping. I could very clearly imagine a journey underwater.
“Maverick” had a quiet opening. Reverb and percussion ruled before the surfacing of complex guitars, lending a busy and purposeful sound. This track was grandiose in scale. An interlude of harmonies was then a stark contrast and the percussion carried significant intensity.
“Whale Fall” had a slow building of intensity, through lots of layers and elements. Percussion was front and centre, with the guitars filling in the background, before they grabbed more attention. There was an air of sadness or poignancy, then a striking feeling of confrontation. This track then stepped up into a powerful last third, with the keyboards adding salt and spice.
“Moulin” (I Googled “moulin” – it seemed that it is a vertical shaft in a glacier, maintained by a constant descending stream of water and debris). An exquisite keyboard opening had me seeing jellyfish floating aimlessly in the swell. Cue: guitars. Whilst this had been the formula to date, the diversity of sound meant that it didn’t get old. There was an odd, organic sound that re-centred me in the intent of this album, before the track kicked into a monstrous overdrive. It felt like a frantic chase. This tracked ebbed and flowed many times, just like the wildest ocean. The last third was grandiose in scale, incorporating all the musical mischief at their disposal, drawing them together into a magnificent musical microcosm.
“Fathoms” had depth immediately, swinging right into the rollicking sound. It was a bit of a hard listen with so much going on, but there were some strategically placed changes of pace. This was a break from the template of the tracks so far. The sound was somewhat confronting. The last third had a significant change to a more relaxed sound, with some interesting repetitive features that reminded me of sonar.
“Odyssey” had an introspective sound, with a higher pitched sound used expertly to scamper from left to right. The slow building of depth and intensity was brilliant. This track certainly felt like an odyssey, with the last third being one of warp speed magnitude.
“Seamount” had a deep, throbbing sound to open, which made me uncomfortable as it seemed to edge ever closer. Nomadic Narwhal then demonstrated sonic supremacy using the most amazing riff, partnered by the aforementioned sound in the background. Vocal harmonies washed in to add to the already significant emotional depth. It had me worried, excited and expectant.
“Abyssal” – with its title, I expected depth and a steep drop off. What I got was an intriguing electro opening, followed by robust riffs, then electro, then riffs, creating a pressure that would fold a Collins class submarine into itself like a tin can can under a road train. Again, the choral parts carried much perturbation. This track reminded me of The Great Wall in “The Game of Thrones”. Could I see an abyssal? Absolutely.
“Hadal” (“of, relating to, or being the parts of the ocean below 6000 meters (about 20,000 feet)” – thanks again, Google) had a wailing, organic-like opening. It had a slower tempo. Did this signify the destination, a place of great pressure? This track floated through different styles – it felt like an exploration or an accomplishment. The last third had a monumental guitar riff and surrounding layers to speed things up significantly. I was again in awe of the way that Nomadic Narwhal was able to share such an extensive musical landscape on one track.
“Trieste” (again, Google told me that this is a seaport in north-east Italy. Or, in French, a trestle bed…) Church-like vocals rolled in, soon accompanied by powerful tribal drumming. This was then partnered by impassioned guitar work. There were many changes of tempo, with this track being one of many facets – one part in particular gave me the impression of being angry or out of breath.
“Challenger” I wondered about the title of this track, thinking that it may be a battle between creatures. It opened in a comparatively restrained manner and there was indeed a brash, clashing character to the sound, but it didn’t feel like a confrontation, more an interaction or meeting.
“Ascent” rose forth with an underwater sound, feeling like being in the washing machine that is a wave as you dive through it. The presence of a church organ-like sound felt like a proclamation – was this about time or a decision? Then, a galloping guitar riff gave the feeling of being out of time, of urgency and of a series of jostling encounters. At the end there was the impression of breaking the surface of the water.
Putting together an instrumental album is not without its perils. There needs to be a diversity of sound across the album, but a cohesion of sound within it to maintain the character of the album. Nomadic Narwhal did this spectacularly well, with every track having its own character. Each track was a gem of rare, immersive beauty.
With the title and subject matter of this album, I couldn’t help but form an expectation of what each track was about. This had me flashing to different underwater locations and scenarios as each track unfolded, with my imagination enabled by the sounds and engineering.
Nomadic Narwhal have drawn together many elements into a harmonious environment – at times soothing, challenging, stressful and exhilarating. The use of ocean-like sounds was done with restraint and they bubbled up at precisely the right moment. The guitar work was amazing, with the riffs being elemental in scope and nature.
Many of the tracks used the last third to flip the script and to intensify the already robust nature of each track. This was done brilliantly, without being overdone or formulaic, conveying emotion and implying circumstance.
This album won’t float everyone’s boat, as there’s a lot going on and the sea theme is never far from the senses. But at the end of this album I felt buoyant – like I had been on a significant journey and arrived home safely.