Holding back helps at times. Just ask New York's Abigail Williams, a group whose newfound sense of restraint has transformed them from mediocre to modestly entertaining. Their latest album – 2010's In the Absence of Light – is a Spartan slice of black metal, a recording whose minimalist music scrapes by on account of its quality rather than quantity. It's a piece of art not without its flaws, but a marked improvement over Abigail Williams' earlier wanderings in the wilderness of overindulgence.
Born in 2005, Abigail Williams quickly amassed a cult following on account of their catchy but caustic metal doused in symphonic flourishes. Before long, these same hordes of fans realized the group relied too much on style over substance. Their earlier effort – 2008's In the Shadow of a Thousand Suns – was an endless torrent of orchestral sound effects and vain technicality, heavy on the sound and light on the fury. Artificial and melodramatic, it was an album lacking in the passion people love heavy metal for. Perhaps unsurprisingly, the band went through a violent series of breakups between 2006 and 2009 before settling on the almost-entirely new lineup listeners hear today.
The ghostly guitar notes and eerie choirs of "Hope, the Great Betrayal" shows the work of a much-improved band is afoot. Its relatively quiet introduction – so unlike Abigail Williams' previous bombast – sets up a gloomy atmosphere that bands in the black metal genre sorely need. When the song's plodding guitar kicks in, it proves a solid jaunt through somber metal that conjures a looming dread. Sadly, the song is hurt slightly by the fact its long runtime makes for a catharsis that never comes.
"Final Destiny of the Gods" solves this problem by managing potential meandering with subtle shifts in dynamics. Chilling melodies and rumbling drums kick things off, only to wear themselves out after an upheaval of furious riffing. A prolonged, melancholy solo ends this extended journey, the ringing harmonics conveying a sense of grim regret that's among the album's best moments.
"The Mysteries that Bind the Flesh" takes Abigail Williams' earlier penchant for complexity and updates it by offsetting twisting melodies with blunt, straightforward riffs. It's a juxtaposition that works given listeners won't be sure what's heading their way next. When the band settles for a firestorm of rapid-fire percussion, frantic guitars, and urgent melodies, the result is an outpouring of vitriol that shows Abigail Williams can capture black metal's brazen hatred.
"Infernal Divide" channels different emotions, driving home waves of despair with ringing, lonely guitar harmonies. Depending on one's mood, the heavy metal plodding behind them will sound brilliantly relentless or obnoxiously repetitive. An arena rock solo mid-song will do little in dissuading this notion, and overall, the song is content hovering in the neutral territory between great and god-awful.
"In Death Comes the Great Silence" saves some face with an onslaught of manic drumming, unhinged guitar melodies, and savage speed. Abigail Williams rarely lets loose on such a level, and when they do, it definitely turns heads. Thankfully, they seize on the moment by adding a passage of creepy melodies and stark, unflinching despair. In a single soft but chilling moment, Abigail Williams amasses more grandeur than many of their older songs combined.
"What Hells Await Me" opts for a similar approach, immediately charging out of speakers with pummeling metal before settling into a section of unnerving chords cloaked in haze. In turn, this leads to a nuanced trek through crushing but catchy riffs and shrieks which rise and fall over a desolate landscape of sound.
"An Echo in Our Legends," in contrast, crawls out of the gate with a glacial pace that isn't helped by the relatively frail guitar riffs that supposedly anchor the song's aggression. This is helped by a churning breakdown mid-song, but it's not enough to save the overall tune from inspiring indifference.
Thankfully, "Malediction" makes for a satisfying finale with its bludgeoning intro and subsequent journey through hypnotizing heavy metal. Malicious and fierce, the band synthesizes their best attributes – raw rock fury and conjuring an aura of dread – into one chilling climax. The song's aural highlight is its biting but beautiful march through defiant guitars and mournful melodies. It's a strong mix of attitude and awe-inspiring atmosphere, the kind that proves Abigail Williams will only improve as they discover their personal identity.
Though it has its moments, In the Absence of Light is an album that shows its creators haven't reached such a destination yet. When the songs work, they're brutal and polished to a brilliant, sleek sheen. When they don't, the outcome is instead songs that feel bloated and paint-by-numbers. In the Absence of Light isn't a perfect record, but it's the best available while Abigail Williams figure themselves out. In the meantime, most listeners will find this marked progress, but still short of the band's potential peak.
Hope, the Great Betrayal
Final Destiny of the Gods
The Mysteries that Bind the Flesh
In Death Comes the Great Silence
What Hells Await Me
An Echo in Our Legends
Mark Hensch is the editor of Thrashpit. His writing also appears on his blog at The Washington Times.