Album Title: Nova
Label: Season Of Mist
Date of Release: 4 March 2022
Whenever Season Of Mist drop a promo into my lap, I find it rude not to dive straight in for a listen, even if it is for an artist about which I previously knew very little. They are a label I tend to trust quite highly, for quality alone, even if I don’t like everyone on their roster. And so, when I received notification that I’d been sent the latest album from Sylvaine, an artist to whom I’m ashamed to admit I’d never given any prior notice, I quickly set about having a listen to see if I was interested in offering a review. The fact that you are now reading this, should give you all the insight you need into the effect that first listen had on me.
Being a reasonably big fan of blackgaze, it is a little troubling to my fragile ego that Sylvaine have evaded my radar for so long. Mind you, there are only so many hours in a day, and when this site is a solo affair, undertaken around a full-time career, two children, a dog, and a million boring adult responsibilities, it’s perhaps not surprising that some artists fall through the cracks along the way. Suffice to say though, having soothed my bruised ego, I won’t be making the same mistake again with Sylvaine if album number four, ‘Nova’ is any indication.
It may not be an accurate statement, but it feels to me that black metal and the subgenres that orbit around it contain a lot more solo, one-person entities than other areas within heavy music. Indeed, as I have found out, Sylvaine is another example, formed by multi-instrumentalist Sylvaine (born Kathrine Shepard). The French/Norwegian artist handles guitar duties as well as all vocals, bass, synths and arrangements in the studio, only entrusting the drums to another, in the form of Dorian Mansiaux.
‘Nova’ is an album that is very much cut from the cloth of blackgaze and will certainly appeal to those that enjoy the sounds of the likes of Deafheaven, Alcest, and others. But what sets Sylvaine apart from these other artists within the genre is the way that she uses her voice to such great effect; her soft, ethereal tones provide a delicacy to the material both at its quietest and heaviest, meaning that so much of the music greets the listener with a warmth and smoothness that’s utterly intoxicating. Additionally, the all-out aggressive attack that blackgaze can provide, is kept in check for large periods, making a much more striking impact when they do finally explode into life. And when they do, Sylvaine delivers a startlingly venomous, anguished shriek to accompany the aggression.
But it is also the way in which Sylvaine explores other sounds and textures that’s very intriguing on ‘Nova’, meaning that it is likely to have a wider crossover appeal I would suggest. Take the opening title track as the perfect example. If you didn’t know anything about this artist before hitting play, you would literally have no idea about the blackgaze roots. It is an exquisite composition, comprised mainly of layers of a capella vocals that create a choir-like sound that’s then gently embellished with subtle synths as the track develops. The melodies grow stronger and more poignant the more times you listen, revealing subtleties that were hidden at first, such as the piercing high notes that suddenly cut through with astonishing clarity. There’s a sadness to the music that suggests that ‘Nova’ is unlikely to be a happy affair, but blackgaze? Nope.
The stark contrast with ‘Mono No Aware’ blows away any misunderstanding however, as it kicks off in heavy fashion, with fast riffing, agonising high-pitched screams, and some really interesting and powerful drumming from Dorian Mansiaux, particularly towards the end of the song. But as I was alluding to earlier, Sylvaine’s clean vocals are never far away, and neither are the elegant melodies that are present even when the music is at its most extreme and hard-hitting. There’s also a great use of dynamics across the near ten-minute piece, with light and shade used masterfully to keep the listener’s attention from wandering, always wondering what’s coming next. How is it possible that I am listening to this record and feeling soothed as I listen? But I am, and it continues across the entirety of the record.
I also love the fact that not all the songs are long drawn-out affairs either, giving a nice pacing and flow to the album in my opinion. In fact, of the six songs, or seven if you include the bonus track at the end, four clock in at under six minutes, with two of these actually falling comfortably under five. The best of these, for my tastes currently, is the stunning ‘Nowhere, Still Somewhere’ which is driven forth by my favourite melody on the album, and which exclusively utilises Sylvaine’s gorgeous wistful vocal tones, again layered to perfection to add depth and richness to a composition that’s as immediate as any song that I’ve heard from this genre in a while.
‘Fortapt’ is the album’s central behemoth, stretching to nearly twelve minutes in length. And yet, it never feels this long. The intro is dreamlike, with synths, clean guitars and delicate vocals working their not inconsiderable magic. From there, much like ‘Mono No Aware’ earlier, it weaves and dances in many directions, occasionally surprising me with a sudden blast of aggressive black metal intensity or a violent shriek. At times, the spectre of post-rock seeps into the composition, but it’s certainly not a negative thing at all, further underlining that ‘Nova’ is definitely no one-dimensional affair.
I cannot complete this review without a mention of ‘Everything Must Come To An End’, because it’s another spellbinding piece of music. Welcoming guest musicians in the form of SAOR’s Lambert Segura on the violin, and cellist Patrick Urban, it carries with it yet another fascinating sonic identity. I detect a vague echo of ‘Mandylion’ era The Gathering at times, but the change at the two-minute mark turns it into one of the most emotional and poignant experiences; the melody is solemn but also light and airy, complimented by Sylvaine’s vocals in a similar vein. And with the introduction of the strings, the composition takes on an even greater beauty and melancholy. I have lost count of the number of times I have had this track on repeat, and I never tire of its abundant charms.
In short, ‘Nova’ is a veritable treasure trove of musical delights, both extreme and delicate in nature. It may be billed as a blackgaze album but in truth, it is so much more than that. It takes the listener down many paths, all of which are enticing for any number of reasons, exploring a range of human emotions along the way. I have thoroughly enjoyed my personal journey through this wonderful album, and I suspect it will be on frequent rotation in the Mansion Of Much Metal for months to come – it certainly deserves to be.
The Score of Much Metal: 90%
Check out my other 2022 reviews here:
You can also check out my other reviews from previous years right here: