Amenra are a Belgian five-piece band who play the best ethereal, hypnotic, sludge-infused ambient post-metal, period. Mass VI is their sixth album, their first release since 2012, and one of the year’s very best. Amenra have a unique take on sludge, one that echoes their Neurosis mentors without being derivative of them. Their riffs are essentially slowed down old school hardcore rather than metal. Guitarists Mathieu J. Vandekerckhove and Lennart Bossu stay in standard tuning and use just enough distortion to add some fizz, but not so much as to make individual notes unhearable. Drummer Bjorn J. Lebon perhaps over-uses the pulse-y slow beat, but he finds ways to make it sound different from song to song. And Amenra would not be complete without the screams (and occasional, painful cleans) of Colin H. van Eeckhout.
Off to Mass We Go…
Mass VI opens with a “Children of the Eye,” a standard Amenra slammer. A quiet intro with a droning tone and a motif familiar from their previous albums takes about two minutes to build up to the next section’s big chords, with the aforementioned motif and screams layered over it. This falls away to an elongated tension-building passage of muted eighth notes. The song then blooms into the heaviness again, with a brand new motif. Throughout this, Eeckhout’s screams are all but drowned out by everything else; the still, small voice feeling the pain of an uncaring world.
The next track is a very short spoken-word poem called “Edelkroone” (“Gemstone”), which is also its last word. “Plus Près que Toi (Closer to You) starts just as heavily as “Children of the Eye.” It builds a wall of sound with tremolo-picked chords (single notes in other passages) over the bass line. The arrangement changes throughout the song, but the underlying motif does not. It moves from heavy to ambient to minimalist and back again. “Plus Près que Toi” has the highest ratio of clean-to-screamed singing on Mass VI. The song shows how Amenra can compose sequentially, with the arrangement being the modulating force rather than the riffs.
“Spijt” (“Sorry”) is the shortest actual song on Mass VI. It starts off sounding just like “Edelkroone”, but Amenra’s signature surge-sludge dominates (albeit instrumentally) the song’s 2m02s duration. Things return to normal (that is, for Amenra) in “A Solitary Reign,” the strongest song on Mass VI. The main motif has more dynamics than anything else on the album, and the interplay between the lead guitar and the bass mix a perfect balance between tension and bewilderment, leading to an edifying finish; again, the clean singing a signpost, this time of understanding the meaning behind the suffering screamed about earlier.
Mass VI ends with “Daiken,” a song with a similar elongated buildup to “Children of the Eye.” It has Amenra’s usual array of changes and grand, ponderous, yet profound melodic soundscape. Then it just ends, abruptly, like a candle suddenly snuffed.
2017 is a banner year for doom, sludge, and post-metal. Albums by Opium Eater, Dreadnought, Celeste, Sundr, Aseethe, and more recently Bell Witch made this a fast year for slow music. It raises the question as to how Mass VI stands against the other releases. The answer would depend on one’s taste, since the above mentioned bands sound different from Amenra, and have their own quirks and idiosyncrasies that make them sound unique. Even so, Amenra have proven themselves on this album as clear masters of the ambient post-hardcore sludge metal form seemingly created by themselves and Neurosis.
Perhaps it would be fair to criticize Mass VI by saying “it sounds like another Amenra album.” Even still, only Amenra sounds like Amenra, and Mass VI meets and in some ways exceeds the standards set in their other notable works such as Mass V and Mass III. Do note this review’s mid-October writing date – that means the year has 10 weeks of sludge left to dredge through. Anything can happen before January, but Mass VI already stands as one of 2017’s strongest releases.
Notable Tracks: “A Solitary Reign”; “Children of the Eye”; “Plus Près de Toi (Closer to You)”
FFO: Neurosis, Cult of Luna
Mass VI was released on October 20, 2017. It can be streamed and purchased through Bandcamp and all the usual streaming services and online stores. Physical copies and bundles are available through the Neurot Recordings website. Follow Amenra on Facebook, Twitter, and YouTube.