VIRGIN BLACK – Requiem: Fortissimo (2008)

Fortissimo Virgin Black have existed quietly on The End Records for the past seven years, too often overshadowed by the work of labelmates like Agalloch, Winds and Ulver. Their albums have always been dark, expressionistic laments of the inherent failures of man. This description might make them sound like a refined black metal band, but nothing could be further from the truth. There’s no anger to be found in their albums, no sense of hate towards the theological status quo (full disclosure: many members of the band identify themselves as Christians, but they do not espouse Church doctrine in their music, instead focusing on the spiritual aspects of the religion, and not the dogma). The bottom line is, Virgin Black aren’t about rebellion. They’re about reconciliation and regret. The band have more in common with dark neoclassical ensembles like Elend than they do with, say, Darkthrone.

Requiem: Fortissimo represents the third and final chapter of an album trilogy focusing on ??? (curiously, the trilogy was released achronologically – the first album, Requiem: Pianissimo has yet to be released). Anyone versed in music terminology will recognize “fortissimo”, and the term is quite an apt one to describe this album, which shares a lot in common with The Silent Enigma-era Anathema and early Katatonia.

Most of the bands who dominated the death/doom scene in the early nineties have either disbanded or evolved into something else, and Virgin Black seem eager to pick up right where they left off. The band an admirable job, sounding often like the legitimate successors to this style. Really, the only time they lose grasp of the style is early on in the album with In Winter’s Ash, a song that gets too musically sparse for too much of the time.

Things are clear right from the beginning that this album’s instrumentation will have little in common with Requiem: Mezzo Forte. The Fragile Breath opens with a pummeling drum and guitar line before about-facing and slowing things down. Way down. Down to the tempo doom is supposed to be played at.

The Fragile Breath demonstrates the two defining musical characteristics of the album. The first is the vocals: the doom style here is defined largely by what goes on vocally (occasionally, there will be a string or a horn flourish, but they’re relatively uncommon). First, there’s the guttural growls provided by Rowan London. Then there’s the hauntingly angelic soprano from Samantha Escarbe. Finally, there’s the obscure, Gregorian Chant-like sections. These three vastly different vocal styles, working in tandem, are what make the album work, providing it with a distinct personality.

Secondly, there’s the recurrence of motifs introduced from the first album. Fragments of Requiem, Kyrie surface in various forms on The Fragile Breath, and at the end of Darkness. The last track Forever, consists entirely of a lone piano playing the final strains Kyrie.

Although the twelve minute Darkness ascends to some truly terrifying heights, the most unnerving track on the album is actually the much-shorter Lacrimosa (Gather Me), a song that plays out like a woe-filled hymn to a distant God. The song opens with London evoking the Almighty with all the agony he can muster (“Gather me, for I am scattered/Speak comfort to me/Gather me, share my sorrow”).

Requiem: Fortissimo‘s menacing tone is sustained even when the songs temporarily abate from the doom style. The piano interludes in God in Dust, for example, are anything but calming, and the strings that surface briefly in Silent are decidedly amelodical. And the band aren’t afraid to hint that they could up the tempo at any time by occasionally tossing in some double-bass drumwork at unexpected moments.

Even though the doom influence is extraordinarily prevalent on Requiem: Fortissimo, it’s remarkable how identifiable the album is as a work of Virgin Black. It’s in the anguish of their lyrics, in the way the band let their compositions slip into states of diminished frailty. The band have succeeded twofold here, by crafting an album in the style of a genre whose heyday (if one can claim that death/doom ever had a heyday) has long since past, and by keeping their identity in the process.

HD RATING: 8.5/10

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