Pneuma is the debut studio album from Greek trio Hail Spirit Noir. The three members of the band are Theoharis on vocals and guitars, Haris on synths, and Dim on bass while the drums are handled by session musician Ioannis Giahoudis, along with additional vocals performed by Dimitris Dimitrakopoulos. Pneuma features six tracks of what is being branded in their press release as psychedelic progressive black metal. While I don’t really find the release to be so much progressive it’s most definitely a psychedelic experience, so much so that it often seems that the psychedelic stuff is the primary focus within the album, rather than the black metal, which in my experience is more of a rarity among so called progressive and avant-garde black metal acts, which seem to only add these additional elements to a core black metal sound. Here it’s like Hail Spirit Noir added black metal elements to a core psychedelic sound instead, so while the black metal is still an integral element in the Hail Spirit Noir sound it doesn’t seem the main focus by a long shot.
Indeed apart from Theoharis’ very tortured sounding black metal rasp it takes until almost half way through the opening track Mountain of Horror before the actual music starts to take on a more direct black metal approach, and even then it’s still layered with the psychedelic elements. More so it’s not until third track Against the Curse, We Dream that the album delivers a track where the black metal is allowed to take the front seat. The synths are used to excellent effect in this regard and although it’s like two worlds colliding all the sound fit together nicely, giving Hail Spirit Noir a sound of the sort that you don’t hear very often, something that sounds unique.
What is probably the best thing about the band’s sound though is that despite the trimmings and use of clean vocals, it doesn’t lose the raw aspect associated with black metal so it even has potential to appeal to fans of the likes of Mayhem and Darkthrone so long as they keep an open-mind towards the album. The sound definitely isn’t over-polished in production values, especially where the guitars are concerned, and overall there’s quite a sinister atmosphere attached to the music, even in light sections featuring clean vocals, such as in the beginning of When All is Black. And yet it’s not so much a typical black metal production as much as it is just an intentionally retro one. I’d say that like the music itself the production values found here draw on the band’s psychedelic and progressive side more than the black metal, another reason why I don’t consider Pneuma to be primarily a black metal album.
Pneuma is quite the interesting trip and with it Hail Spirit Noir have set themselves a high standard to follow. The album is in possession of the sort of sound that if you dig it the album becomes an easy listen even during the near thirteen minute composition Into the Gates of Time, which also happens to be the best of the six tracks on offer and also unsurprisingly given its length, the most progressive. I’m also extra fond of Against the Curse, We Dream and Let Your Devil Come Inside but Pneuma is such an album that there are no dips in quality below being really great.
Overall it’s actually very near masterpiece level, but there is a little room for improvement – although it’s still the best track, Into the Gates of Time does feature a bit of a drawn out section of what sounds like a load of crickets where nothing really happens until an acoustic guitar comes it over the noise, only to disappear again before the track’s conclusion and the noise continues up until the start of the closing Haire Pneuma Skoteino. I’m not really a fan of such things in any style of music, mainly because I’m never sure just what the artist is trying to achieve by including such ambient background noise when nothing else is going on, especially when it’s not building up to a hidden track as in Pneuma’s case. Fortunately this doesn’t last too long as the appearance of the acoustic helps to break it up, but I still could have done without this particular section.
Haire Pneuma Skoteino, the final track, cuts a bit of a different atmosphere to the rest of the album. It feels uplifting and if anything its main melody sounds just a little cheery in contrast to the dark and bleak sound heard previously. Originally I didn’t think it fit into the album so well, but then some time after I originally published this review I was given the opportunity to interview the band, and Theoharis answered my questions, one of which was based on this particular track, and his answer gave me a whole new perspective on which eliminated the ‘how does this fit with the rest of the album?’ problem that I’d had with it previously and thus caused me to go back to this review and bump up the score a few points. Theoharis explained that the uplifting feel to the track is just a front, and that there’s real threat behind it, which is a notion that can be related to in many things. For a simple example, think the sort of villain of a story or film who acts nice until they don’t get their own way and then the hidden dark side comes out. With that knowledge now firmly in my mind, it’s evident that Hail Spirit Noir did an exceptional job with this track. As Theoharis said, you just have to dig deep.
Ultimately I’m left feeling very positive about Pneuma. It is a truly excellent debut album. Despite the fault I had with Into the Gates of Time it doesn’t take away too much from my enjoyment of the release overall and rating the album with less than a high end exceptional score would be doing it an injustice.
(Originally written for Heavy Metal Haven (http://metaltube.freeforums.org))