Oak Pantheon – The Absence – Album Review
Artist: Oak Pantheon
Album Title: The Absence
Label: Independent Release
Date of Release: 20 January 2023
What do you get when you seek to blend black metal with folk and post metal, alongside a fair few other ingredients? The answer is, you get Oak Pantheon and, more specifically, their third full-length album, ‘The Absence’.
It’s my first foray into the world of Oak Pantheon, spurred on by a suggestion or two from the fine readers of this website. Therefore, let’s delve into the background of the band first, for those equally as uninitiated as I. Formed around 2011, Oak Pantheon hail from Minnesota in the United States and are a quartet comprised of new additions, Andrew Anderson (drums) and Jake Spanier (bass) alongside founding fathers Sami Sati and Tanner Swenson. Sati handles vocal, guitar and bass duties, whilst Swenson is now responsible for guitars and vocals having previously also handled the drums, percussion, and bass. Are you still with me? Great.
Tackling themes around nature and philosophy, Oak Pantheon do have quite an organic, earthy sound that comes through their music and the production that they have gone for here on ‘The Absence’. It isn’t the raw, under-produced, cold approach of many within the realm of black metal. And it isn’t the grandiose, multi-layered, crisp, flawless production that is favoured by others. Rather, there is a definite warmth to the music, as well as a deliberately naïve charm, despite the heavy and uncompromising nature of some of the material here. I like it, as it fits the music well, music that doesn’t want to sit in any one place for too long.
What I do love about this album, right from the beginning, is that the music, whichever way it goes, manages to convey that sense of the vastness of their home. For all the heaviness and vicious sonic attacks that emerge, not once do I feel claustrophobic listening to it. In fact, there’s a sense of openness and freedom that is wonderfully conveyed throughout.
Nowhere is this better felt than with the opening song, ‘Becoming None’, a great composition to set the tone for the seven songs that follow. It starts off as delicately as humanly possible with a lone guitar being plucked to a tune that sounds a little like ‘Twinkle, Twinkle, Little Star’. When the acoustic guitar starts strumming, and the song starts to build, I’m reminded of Agalloch through the rich atmospheres that are created. At the half-way point, the tack greatly shifts, unveiling a majestic and melodic style of black metal, complete with fast riffing and double-pedal drumming, that also blends clean layers of vocals with harsher growls to great effect. It fits with the opening half, whilst also showing two distinct sides of Oak Pantheon.
‘Listen!’ is quite possibly my favourite track on the album but is markedly different from the opener. It starts with the sound of feedback and an energetic, fast, swirling riff that has a sense of real attitude about it. The bass sits at the heart of this track like a pulsing heartbeat, whilst all around it moves from post-metal edginess to classic metal, to progressive metal, to spiky black metal intent. Out of nowhere, a chorus to die for emerges, as well as cool lead guitar breaks. The hooks are strong, and the whole thing is comprised of a smorgasbord of juxtaposing ideas that coalesce nicely into a killer song.
‘Dissociate’ is a short, sharp blast of well-executed post-black metal with a soft, almost minimalist, melodic centre and rousing closure, whilst ‘Beating Heart’ switches things up yet again. Or, as might be more accurate, it tones things down a touch. Here, piano and acoustic guitar come together beautifully to create the aural backdrop to a touching, melancholy song. The soft whispers and almost spoken-word vocal delivery lend the song a Leonard Cohen vibe, but it’s the authenticity blended with the sad lyrics that make this a compelling listen.
The pace is immediately quickened thanks to the brisk, skipping exuberance of ‘Bard Of The Hell-Bent Ages’. I’m not such a fan of the pronounced folky, sing-along nature of much of it, but I still admire Oak Pantheon for mixing things up yet again.
For me, the other big highlight is the penultimate track, ‘Silence We Plead’, which again seeks to pull together all of the various strengths of the band into a glorious song. It has a Devin Townsend feel to it later on, as it seeks to offer hope, positivity, and a sense of the epic, too. But we get another really lovely acoustic guitar intro, followed by a lilting, swaying burst of black metal, an introspective reprise of the spoken-word vocals, a solo female voice, and a choral section that’s positively rousing. The ebb and flow is great, and the churning walls of riffs near the close is almost hypnotic. Overall, it’s yet another example of a band that isn’t afraid of trying something a little bit different and going their own way.
In fact, ‘Silence We Plead’ could be the metaphor for this album and for Oak Pantheon in general. I can’t think of another band that sound quite like this, although references to many are fleeting at points. This ultimately means that I’m faced with something rather unique and for that, this quartet should be congratulated and commended. If the description in this review has whetted your appetite, then I strongly suspect that you’ll enjoy this record. In which case, hunt down ‘The Absence’ by Oak Pantheon, sit back, and enjoy.
The Score of Much Metal: 85%