Cistvaen - At Light's Demise

Artist: Cistvaen

Album Title: At Light’s Demise

Label: Independent Release

Date of Release: 5 April 2024

I’m a little late again to the party but such has been the impact that this record has had on me, it seemed ridiculous, bordering on the insane, not to write a review of it. My hope is that by doing so, I can assist the band in some small way, by bringing them to the attention of a few more people than perhaps otherwise they might. That said, I’ve already noticed a steady increase in attention on various social media feeds as, one by one, fans of the more underground end of the metal spectrum cotton on to the fact that these guys are the real deal.

‘These guys’ are, in fact, Cistvaen, an atmospheric black metal band from Devon in the UK. The southwest of England is perhaps better known for its rural countryside, clotted cream, and tourism than as a hotspot for extreme metal, but Cistvaen could single-handedly turn this reality on its head. Formed back in 2016, it has taken until 2024 for their full-length debut to be released but, having discovered its existence a week or so ago, all I can say is that ‘At Light’s Demise’ was well worth the wait.

A quintet, Cistvaen is comprised of bassist James Mardon, guitarists Lee Meade and Mark Sanders, drummer Ed Wilcox, and vocalist Guy Taylor. And, whilst I’m sure they’ll collectively agree that their output doesn’t reinvent any wheels or signal a paradigm shift, they should be commended for their efforts because this is atmospheric black metal out of the very top drawer. It contains everything that a lover of this kind of music could possibly want, including cold and abrasive riffs, savage vocals, and melody, not to mention passages of introspection and lashings of sombre emotion besides.

However, what really catches my ear, is the production. It may be raw and organic, such is the accepted way with this genre of music, but it is also surprisingly clear and strong. It even allows, slightly unusually, the bass guitar to have a genuine impact. For once, it’s not the forgotten instrument buried deep within a muddy, indistinct mix. Instead, it’s an integral element to the Cistvaen sound, and James Mardon takes full advantage, lacing the compositions with his expressive playing.  

Unlike many records of this ilk, ‘At Light’s Demise’ does not open with an introductory instrumental piece to ease us in. In fact, there’s only one such piece and it arrives as the penultimate track, an acoustic guitar-led moment to take stock before we’re hit one final time via the weighty closer ‘The Blind Observer’.

Instead, the title track wastes almost no time in getting going, with fast, staccato riffs and double pedal drumming detonating from the speakers straight away. Even so, there’s already a majestic air to the music, and an elegance that tells us that this may be black metal, but it is going to be a beautiful affair. Higher-pitched growls are the dominant vocal approach, but Guy Taylor does mix it up a touch, unleashing some deeper vocal sounds at times, as well as some deep toned, almost Gothic narration. But, for me, the melodies are the key to this song, because they are stunning. At over nine minutes in length, you’d expect the composition to move around and experiment with tempos and ideas, which it does, diving from all-out attack, to slower, quieter, and more fragile. But around every corner, there’s a stunning melody, usually created by the lead guitar lines, that does its best to floor me. Quite often, it succeeds. If you don’t get shivers at the 6:31 mark, when the lead guitar line re-emerges, or at 8:04 when it hits a heartbreaking high note, you’re not human.

I could go on for hours about this opening song, but with five others to explore (six if you include the brief ‘Silver Birch’ interlude), I’d best move on.

Cistvaen - At Light's Demise
Credit: Konstantina Frasia Photography

To be perfectly honest, the title track sets the scene pretty well for the remainder of the album. ‘Cessation Of Hope’ is another composition out of the top drawer, starting off in fast and frenetic fashion, before offering something more mid-tempo, groovy, and altogether wonderfully catchy. There’s an increase in lush, textured synths within this song too, for my money, an increase that only serves to accentuate the music’s elegance and enhance the solemn, melancholic feel that hangs over it. The mid-song descent into minimalist territory allows some quiet introspective thought, before it gradually and beautifully rebuilds, in no hurry to unfurl just as you hope it will. And when it does, it’s that lead guitar that steals the show and breaks hearts in the process.

With the introduction of ‘The Epitaph’, Cistvaen decide to take more of a doom-laden approach to their atmospheric black metal, hinting strongly at compatriots like My Dying Bride, early Paradise Lost, and even a smidge of Swallow The Sun or early Katatonia. Whoever you personally hear, the fact remains that this is another exquisite piece of music. Crunching riffs, poignant lead lines, throbbing bass lines, and pleading vocals all play important parts as Cistvaen mesmerise with another soul crushingly stunning composition of which I simply cannot get enough. After the halfway point, the speed does increase and we’re back into the more familiar early black metal environs, but it doesn’t stop the melodies from cutting deep and lasting long in the memory.

Unless my ears are deceiving me, I believe that Cistvaen have been quite clever on ‘At Light’s Demise’ by reprising certain melodies throughout, or at least using variations upon a theme. There’s a familiarity with some as the album deepens; not in a bad way, but in a rather magical way. I may be mistaken of course, but I don’t think so.

The second half of ‘Time The Mournful’ in particular is breathtakingly good. Once again, out of the ashes of simple, minimalist contemplation comes a lead guitar line and accompanying melody that leaves my jaw flat on the floor. The amount of emotion that this band manage to inject into their music is quite something to behold, elevating the music to a whole other level in my estimations. Even when they break out a more galloping rhythm, as evidenced at the outset of ‘Bleak House’, it works, and carries me along for the exhilarating ride. The riff at 6:38 is again a little different to all that has gone before, but it’s great and seems to suggest that Cistvaen can literally do no wrong.

I feel a bit bad about not going into detail about the equally brilliant closer, ‘The Blind Observer’. But what more can I possibly say about this record that I haven’t already said? 2024 has already delivered some really great atmospheric black metal music but I have to say that, as it stands, this is the very best of the lot so far. Moreover, such is the power, beauty, and elegance of ‘At Light’s Demise’, I have a hard time believing that I could be beaten any time soon. As far as I’m concerned, this is the pinnacle of the genre and is the standard by which all others are likely to be judged, definitely by me.

The Score of Much Metal: 95%



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