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With somber beauty, Unto Ashes fuse old world instrumentation and modern electronics to create an ethereal amalgam which transcends temporal boundaries. The band's unique alchemy draws upon musical influences as varied as medieval, goth, post-punk, Eastern European folk songs and traditional Arabic chants. Honing their craft on dulcimers, keyboards, hurdy-gurdy, guitar, harp, percussion and voice, Unto Ashes create a soundscape full of haunting beauty - - - evocative, mesmerizing and powerful.
Originally released in 1999, then rereleased by new label Projekt the following year, Moon Oppose Moon, the band's full debut, shows lead member Michael Laird and his range of collaborators -- some of whom left before the album first appeared -- dedicated to the possibilities of melancholy, elegant gloom. That Laird names such bands as Dead Can Dance and In Gowan Ring as his favorites isn't surprising upon giving Moon a listen, but his choice of groups like Sepultura and Weekend shows that there's a broader appreciation at play. Add in the wide range of influences the others in the band bring to bear -- keyboardist Natalia Lincoln's love of numerous classical music composers, percussionist/singer Melody Henry's namechecking from Current 93 to Pablo Neruda and more -- and the sense of range attempted at is apparent. Certainly the band's own description of itself as 'exploring apocalyptic folk and synthetic gloom' sums it up as well as anything. The vocal emphasis is generally on the trio of female singers -- most prominently Kit Messick, one of the members who departedafter recording -- though Laird sings himself on about half the tracks, with a soft, gentle air. The combination of traditional music emphases and modern touches make the Dead Can Dance comparisons quite understandable, but there's a simpler, sparer approach on Moon than that band creates. Laird's delicate guitar playing and additional instruments help lead the songs, but the other performers, including the intriguingly-named Spider Grandmother on harp and Paul Ash on everything from hurdy-gurdy to plucked dulcimer, give the songs even more beauty and depth. Moon Oppose Moon is a striking first effort, well worth the investigating. ~ Ned Raggett
Vocals are split fairly evenly between Michael Laird's somber intonations and Kit Messick's plain though emotional singing. "Teach Me How To Drown" is a hauntingly simple chant of sorrow accompanied by stark, ghostlike music, which contrasted with the apocalyptic folk of "Der Letzte Ritter" shows the dynamics of Moon Oppose Moon. "Swarm" ventures into the sonic territories of Raison d'Etre, with quiet, cold scrapings and echoes, providing a tenebrous interlude. Modern medievalism is visited prominently throughout the album, but appears strongly in the ascetic "Scourge," a sombre dirge of self-flagellation sung by Laird, and "This Duration Of Emptiness," drenched in dulcimer and acoustic percussion.
Unto Ashes also set themselves ahead by encompassing a wide variety of cultural styles, which other similar bands tend to avoid. This gives a much greater relevance and integrity, as their ancient style of composition invokes a sense of the empires of old. "Tre Fontane" is a roiling percussion and hurdy-gurdy piece with eastern embellishments, and "Quid Vides?" evokes desert missionaries. The variety of language is key as well, with Latin, German and English lyrics.
Moon Oppose Moon is a truly innovative and skilled work, and Laird and Messick are incredibly talented individuals, as are the few other players who grace the album, each contributing their unique musical talents to Unto Ashes' arrangements, and bringing the vision to life. Both complex and simplistic, Moon Oppose Moon is vital, evocative and creatively visionary in its scope.
The instrumentation on this album is amazing--the usual guitars, keyboards, and synths, yes, but also harp, hurdy gurdy, plucked and hammered dulcimer, bells, frame drums, and numerous other noisemakers. That combined with the band's fine ear for medieval and Renaissance textures gives Moon Oppose Moon a wonderfully anachronistic feel, but with a polish and sophistication sometimes lacking from other apocalyptic folk groups. Put this album in your CD player, close your eyes, and prepare to be taken away to another time and place, a shadowed world of haunted loves and broken dreams, ancient evil tempered with infinite tenderness.
It's very difficult to pick favorites here; almost all the tracks are great, with the exception of some B horror movie synth cheesiness toward the end of the instrumental "Sojourner" and plodding synth-heavy monotony on "Der letzte Ritter." A lot of the songs combine lovely, delicate music with very dark lyrics, which makes for a deeply disturbing combination, as on the opening "Teach Me How to Drown" or "Scourge." "Quid Vides?" totally knocks me out -- I never realized how well lyrics in Latin (told from the point of view of a corpse floating in the sea) could work in a goth song till I heard this one, and the hurdy gurdy in it is amazingly creepy. And Kit Messick's singing on "This Duration of Emptiness" is beautiful, bringing to sad life the pointed lyrics about the loss of a love that never was (too bad Kit's no longer with the band). Finally, I think almost all the instrumental tracks deserve high marks, especially "Kosepkorbacs," whose frame drums, hammered dulcimer, and synth put me in mind of a masquerade ball, with shades in rotting finery twirling madly in a crumbling, noisome crypt. - Dave Aftandilian
Projekt Records seems to have a propensity for signing completely enthralling bands. Seriously, every band that I have heard on Projekt's roster has done nothing but impress me. Unto Ashes is but another band to add to that roster. As far as music is concerned, Unto Ashes are walking along the divergent path. I hear an obvious Dead Can Dance influence, but there is something Unto Ashes has that differentiates them greatly from their Australian counterparts. If you listen to the opener "Teach Me How to Drown", you will hear the melancholy folk influence that sets the mood for the rest of the album. Enchanting, repetitive, and hypnotic acoustic guitars are plucked to the sound of dulcimers, bodhran, and synthesizers. Female vocals encircle the music, giving off a very desolate aural atmosphere. Band mastermind Michael Laird also lends his voice to a couple of tracks. Lyrically, Unto Ashes walk the fine line between contemplative poetry and gothic genius, as well as taking two pieces of old literature (Theodore Wratislaw's "Sonnet Macabre", and Carmina Burana's "Estuans Interius"). "The Viper Song" is a very hypnotic song where the lyrics are spoken over the music, whilst "Swarm" is a smartly placed noisescape. Unto Ashes are one of the best new bands to come on the scene in quite some time. "Moon Oppose Moon," in short, is a hypnotic, relaxing, and haunting masterpiece that should not be overlooked by even the most elite of music fans.
Utilizing period, ethnic, and acoustic instruments, Unto Ashes create a meditative setting with natural percussion, eerie drones, chimes, harps, hammered dulcimer, and ritualistic chant. Lead by multiple female vocal styles, the deeper voice of Melody Henry provides a perfect contrast between Kit Messick’s voice, which recalls Rose McDowell of Strawberry Switchblade and Current 93/DIJ fame. Many passages are defined by a soft male voice, but there is overall a great variety of styles, as well as multi-lingual recitation.
The album is meant to be heard as a whole, as there is a veritable maze of moods and varying degrees of intensity, sometimes climactic other times more passive. Yet never do Unto Ashes fail to be dark. Of the thirteen songs presented, four songs stick out to me personally as timeless classics.
The stark opening “Teach Me How To Drown” is brilliant due to its bitter and metaphorical lyricism. Unto Ashes exhibit some sincerely mentionable lyrical accomplishments, at least by way of imagery and emotional expression in the aforementioned track, the Romantic “Sonnet Macabre,” and “This Duration Of Emptiness.” They are personal and minimalistic, far from coming across as clichéd bleeding hearted poets. But “Duration…” is an uncomfortable listen, with a chorus that repeats, “Our love was like a child that died.” The line is delivered with such a despaired and unwavering conviction that you can’t help but feel slightly oppressed by it, not to mention an acoustic guitar and subtle piano accompaniment which is similar in its air of misanthropy to Strength Through Joy nd the accentual chimes bring to mind early 90’s Death In June. This striking testament succeeds on levels of genius that most artists cannot even hold a candle to.
The vocals of Michael Laird shine on “Scourge,” a short and simple yet highly effective song. I first heard this song a few months ago on the “Orphée compilation and loved it then just as much as I do now. It’s an ideal song for the upcoming season, as it has a very bleak and icy pagan winter feel to it. Melancholic chimes, subtle synths, and acoustics guitars mesh together perfectly.
The album concludes powerfully with the haunting and eerie “Conjuration To Lilith.” This is perhaps the best example of Unto Ashes and what they are capable of, as nearly all their various approaches are touched on slightly in this well-crafted song. The verses and refrain offer a sampling of the spoken word, choral, and solo singing that appear throughout the CD. The lyrics themselves are interesting. I am uncertain whether they are original or if they are an interpretation of an actual magick text. Most likely a fair combination of both, but regardless a fitting tribute to the nocturnal ‘Lady of Beasts.’ The very last thing you hear on the CD after a few moments of silence are some tastefully strange sounds…. and the muffled cry of a screech owl amidst the chilling cacophony. I usually am unimpressed by things like this that are deliberately intended to be ‘spooky’ but this was very well done and effective. Are we to assume then that She arrived in all Her nocturnal glory?
Unto Ashes are in league and alike in spirit with such mystical and arcane misanthropes as Sopor Aeternus, Love Is Colder Than Death, Ataraxia, DCD, and the World Serpent elite. Hopefully, they will continue to create music of this caliber for years to come and therefore, please the starving tastes of the more refined dark music fan. - Matthew