Thermohaline – yes you heard me right, oceanography-fans – are a 3-piece avant garde clutch of multi-instrumentalists pedalling black metal of the resolutely progressive variety. The prog, in this instance, comes draped in concepts of the cruel unknowable sea and the frightfully heavy metal things that no doubt lurk there. Indeed, the press release for Maelström is steeped in the kind of romanticised crap that can only come from dudes who have never spent months living on a ship, surrounded by other dudes and getting whipped by winds gusting close to the tonne.
As is often the case with very far out permutations on the black metal template (where the net output is usually the same withering blasts and non-linear song structures to greater or lesser effect), I do not feel particularly hopeful as I spin opener, “Obra Dinn”. This is squarely hammered home as the picked shoe-gazey opening strains are joined by what sounds a lot like an accordion, set firmly to ‘jaunty sailor’.
I’ll be honest, I don’t always like weird olde worlde shit getting bolted onto my beloved heavy metal and it’s fair to say, early impressions here were not good. But I’m generally happy to admit when I’m wrong and, on further inspection, Maelstrom, it soon becomes apparent, is really quite engaging.
So, what do Thermohaline sound like? Well, beyond the Jolly-Rogerisms which appear only sporadically after the opener, we have some very low guitars that switch frequently between crawling riffs and the kind of tremolo-picked melodies that will be well known to aficionados of the post rock, blackgaze spectrum. Their willingness to push these riffs into the background to make way for evocative, synth and sample driven soundscapes is, however, where they really start to win me over. Oppressive, sinister but never depressing and when used to best effect – as in the middle section of standout, “Sirens” – profoundly beautiful.
Okay, so I mentioned synths above and by the second track you will be under no illusion about Thermohaline’s fetish for electronica. I’ll be honest and say that it took me a while to confirm to myself that there were any acoustic drums at all on Maelström. In this day and age that is no barrier to metal excellence, but aside from the generic blasts and the occasional groove-out, what is remarkable is just how techno things get in parts. Are there sections where breakbeats quite literally kick the walls of guitar in and take over? You can bet the Kraken’s balls there is!
The progressive flourishes remain the rule rather than the exception here and through Maelström’s runtime, genre hopping sound collages, washes of white noise and fragments of disembodied instrumentation glance in and out of the mix. You get the impression the proggyness is being sought out because the end result sounds cool, not just for the sake of it. Yet, for all these auditory challenges Maelström is punctuated by moments of almost commercial sounding groove; “Shipwrecked” and the more vanilla BM of closer “Denmarkd” are borderline accessible!
I have no idea what the market for this kind of record is or even if there is one bar a few dozen metal nerds (myself included) who trawl Spotify and obscure labels for just this kind of thing. But who cares? I doubt Thermohaline do. The layers of instrumentation on this work, and the manifold voices and the attention to fine detail expressed through clever editing, tasteful textures and curious instrument choices mark this out as a work of passion, not a commercial enterprise.
In summary, an engaging and stirring work that, despite misgivings whips past in a heartbeat and asks you to listen again. A pleasant surprise.
And Krakens do have balls. Don’t argue with me. 8/10
THERMOHALINE – MAELSTRÖM
LABEL: ONISM PRODUCTIONS
RELEASE DATE: MARCH 26th 2021