River Of Souls
Usurper

Ah, another review that has suffered the effects of long term tardiness due to an extremely hectic life schedule these past few months. Nevertheless, the term “better late than never” does not aptly due justice to the transgression of not getting the word out sooner on the fantastic second full-length offering, Usurper, from the Netherland’s River of Souls. You might be familiar with the band, and my fondness for the act, as I have reviewed both their debut album, The Well of Urd, and the follow up EP, The Nihilist, here on this very site.

Their doom trenched death metal is one of maturity and experience that often takes a band years to achieve, though to be fair, band mastermind/guitarist/drummer, Paul Beltman is no slouch or new comer. Having played in a plethora of bands over the past twenty-five years, most notably on the album that put Sinister back on the map, the godly Afterburner, and the equally impressive and best album from Supreme Pain, Divine Incarntion. Yet it’s River of Souls that shows the man’s worth when it comes to crafting superb, weighty and emotionally sound structures of somber beauty and melancholic divinity, as well as heaving organic masses of tonal barbarity.

“Harbinger” opens Usurper with a short minute and a half instrumental of heft and melody. While the track is nothng really too intricate, the main riff is quite a driver and the title is definitely befitting as the song feels as a harbinger of brutal and sorrowful tales to come.  Heavy and heartfelt while still recalling just a bit of the Peaceville three (Paradise Lost, Anathema, & My Dying Bride), Officium Triste, and the likes, “Of Pit and Snare” and Usurper as a whole, showcases a sound that the band has devloped and defined into their own, even moreso  than their already establised take on their prior releases. Classy and powerful drumming, fat tasty riffs, and deep guttural bellows accompanied with some gritty clean vocals come together to take you on a journey of a moving and elegant nature, complete with dreamy melodies of emotion, where a less is more attitude is brilliantly utilized. Opening and eventually ending with the same meldoic lead, the track succeeds in giving a complete and even cyclical feeling, the kind one gets from a journey completed or a mission well done.

Though River of Souls is still a young band, as far as releases go, their debut album made a diehard fan out of me so being objective is a bit hard. Yet I really don’t see where any self-respecting fan of deathly doom or doomy death would have a problem with R.o.S. whatsoever.  Usurper is chock-full of delights and aural high points around every corner, culminating in an utmost expansive, thrilling, and ultimately, an all out satisfying listen.  Just the fact that my favorite songs from Usurper literally change every time I listen to the album is, in my eyes, a testament to how good and powerfully addictive the album is.

Seriously, one day my favorite might be “At Rope’s End” and its slower to midpaced somberness, simple, yet driving beats, and a sad, moving melody that recalls times of a draconian nature, if you will, in a most excellent manner. Another day my tastes gravitate toward the suprisingly furious blasting, yet entrancingly beautiful tremolo picked melodic hauntingness of instrumental “Fateweaver”, while other times it’s the album’s title track that sends the shivers of excitement with its faster tempo and fantastic  tremolo melodicism that gives off a stellar feel of classic Naglfar-ian black metal bite before morphing into a militaristic pummel of wonderful death-doom. The mix of spoken word, clean gruffs, and deathly bellows, as well as huge, tight riffing, and propelling drumwork lend to the tracks all encompassing nature, especially when things shift into a slow, slithering, and even soul draining essence of hefty might, capable of cleansing with its purity, much like the track’s lyrics state.

No matter the day, or what song from Usurper might be hitting me just right, I can never deny the power and overall simple and somber, yet stunning attributes of “A Spirit’s Weight”. The song is a bit more traditional in the death-doom sense, but holy shit, it’s done so damn well. Quite beautiful in its tortured elegance, the song’s melodies are to die for, especially at the 2:08 mark where they move into blissful territory teaming up with the wondeful gutturals of vocalist Bart de Greef before melding into some slow and moving solo work that eventually turns back to the impressive vocalist, once again showcasing some terrific spoken word, and gritty cleans layered with some cavernous roars. Clocking in at damn near twelve minutes, “The Tightening” walks an impressive path and wears a lot of hats on its journey, though the band always manages to stay within and true to their established sound.

Starting off with some luscious somber melody and leadwork with shades of melancholic beauty mixed with a shadowing of forebodness and possible lurking dread, “The Tightening” gradually picks up a chunky heft into its nature, breaking into a full on, in your face, Mordor march of doomy trepidation filled death. An unexpected uptempo thrashing blackness of emotions rears its head at the 4:35 mark, complete with some seething vocals to match, things turn into a Schuldiner-esque/Death flavored riff at the 5:20 before showcasing some fantastically scathing and punishing vocal work. Things again shift back into doom drenched somber fields, showcasing everything from fat riffage, crisp, tight, driving and blasting drums, acoustic interludes, spoken word,  tremolo picked melody, gritty cleans and venomous rasps, and stirring guitar solos. What would be ultimate overload and disaster for many other bands, seasoned veterans included, ends up being another notch of conquest in the belt of victory brandished by River of Souls. Usurper closes out with the melancholic instrumental dirge that is “Aftermath”, the track  having an appealing beauty that is as heavy in its nature as in its simplicity. Managing to achieve a seemingly border line state between reality and shadow, “Aftermath” is a perfect finale to Usurper, focusing on a dreamlike diaphanous realm only attainable through high enlightenment or extreme trauma.

While we may only be halfway through 2020, I can assure you that River of Souls and Usurper will find a place on one of the top rungs of  my albums of the year list (hell, I managed to talk about every song on the album, that’s how much enamored with it I am). It just feels like a complete listen that gives you everything you want out of it. Each track has its own life and vital personality, while at the same time all of them coming together  in a connecting like manner. Usurper has a great flow with a cyclical like nature, fluxing  into itself from beginning to end in a natural way. The albums’s lyrical content is intelligent, emotional, and heartfelt as well as wisely being interpretively indirect much of the time. While I can’t quite tell if there is a connecting song to song concept, or just a familiar theme within the album, I can say that Usurper strikes most successfully when consumed as a whole piece rather as a singular collective.

I’m not sure what it is, but River of Souls gives me that giddy feeling like I know something that the masses don’t, like I’m aware of something that the world would love but doesn’t seem competent enough for yet. Simply put, the album is just that damn good. Easily as good, if not better than the latest albums from the likes of My Dying Bride, Paradise Lost, Officium Triste, Katatonia, Swallow the Sun, Novembers Doom, and October Tide. That might seem like a bold statement, but I stand by it, through and through.

[Visit the band's website]
Written by Kristofor Allred
September 11th, 2020

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