Relapse Records/Rocket Distribution
Reviewed By Michael O'Brien
Serpentine Path return with another slab of crushing bleakness
The demise of New York-based sludge/doom outfit, Unearthly Trance, back in 2012 was a disappointing turn of events but, softening the blow, a new venture featuring the band’s three members as well as ex-Electric Wizard/ex-Ramesses guitarist, Tim Bagshaw, was announced in the form of Serpentine Path. My expectations were high for their debut, self-titled, album but they weren’t quite met; the album was doomy and massively heavy but it suffered from being too single-minded and lacking in variety for my liking.
Now, less than two years after the release of their debut, Serpentine Path is back with a new album entitled Emanations. Of note this time around is that an additional guitarist has been added to the band’s ranks in Stephen Flam whose work in the classic early ‘90s doom outfit, Winter, further ups the ante in Serpentine Path’s supergroup status and, unsurprisingly, has added additional heft to the band’s already weighty sound.
What’s most surprising to me about Emanations as it relates to Serpentine Path is that the death metal influence that coexisted with the band’s strong doom leanings on the latter has been stripped back considerably, with the former focusing much more intently on exploring the recesses of barren doom landscapes. I say that I find this surprising because, to be honest, I think the band’s exploration of doom motifs on Serpentine Path was probably the biggest contributing factor to the album’s overall lack of variety; not because it was doom but because the band clearly had a singularity of vision of how to express the ideas (or idea) they had.
So, as stated, Emanations sees Serpentine Path slithering deeper into doom territory, with the band offering up a collection of seven tracks that easily match the heaviness of those on their previous album but also manage to increase the inherent oppression within to impressive levels in the process. From the opening strains of “Essence of Heresy”, it’s clear that the band is intent on performing a slow and concentrated bludgeoning of its audience and, for the next 45 minutes, that’s exactly what is achieved.
Emanations rarely elevates its tempos above the slowest of plodding crawls, preferring instead to rely on the subtle melodic guitar lines that pepper each of the tracks to serve as the primary differentiating element between each of the songs. Had these dalliances with melody not been incorporated, I think it’s safe to say that the minimalism that’s so central to the song-writing and heaviness of Emanations (and Serpentine Path’s music in general) would simply have been too laborious to endure for this kind of duration. It’s not that the underlying riffs offer no variety, it should be said, it’s just that they are all cut from the same cloth and, when this is combined with relatively static, lumbering tempos, a keen ear is required to truly pick them apart.
What’s interesting and quite challenging about Serpentine Path’s music, though, is that it never really offers its listeners any form of build and release-styled payoff. The band works hard to write material that revels in an atmosphere of tension and unease but is content to work that angle without ever offering up any reprieve. One the one hand this makes for a challenging and utterly devastating aural experience but, on the other, it also makes the act of listening somewhat of an undertaking and one that can only truly be indulged in when the time and the place are both right. Casual listening this definitely is not but, you know, I think Serpentine Path deserves respect for throwing out the rule book and crafting an album that pushes its listeners and makes no compromises in doing so. Sure, the respect earned from taking a risk doesn’t necessarily mean the same thing as liking the outcome of said risk but, in this instance, I feel like we can treat these concepts as analogous because Serpentine Path’s risk has yielded a hefty reward.
Much like the debut before it, Emanations is a difficult album to listen to and is a difficult album to recommend without the caveats mentioned above. This is music that is minimalist, oppressive, and very challenging to consume from beginning to end but, somewhat ironically, these are both Emanations’ strongest assets and its most pronounced liabilities. Serpentine Path simply wouldn’t be Serpentine Path without these qualities but, conversely, what makes them so strong is also what will forever keep them at arm’s length from a great deal of the greater metal listening population. With all that being considered, though, it seems to me that the band is perfectly OK with that.
More from Serpentine Path
- Serpentine Path [review]