Review: Vale of Pnath Venture Into New Territory with Between the Worlds of Life and Death

It seems like everything is “blackened” something-or-other nowadays, doesn’t it? Apparently all it takes is some MIDI orchestration on top of fast blast beats and high pitched screams, maybe a pentagram here or there, and once that element of atmosphere has been added, now all of a sudden it’s “blackened deathcore” or “blackened death metal” or whatever. Personally, I blame Behemoth. They didn’t do it on purpose, but by all accounts their brief yet highly successful foray into death metal caused a ripple effect that eventually culminated in a whole new subgenre. Don’t get me wrong, I like it, but it needs to be done right, and unfortunately a lot of bands tend to miss the mark by either not going far enough or totally overplaying their hand.

It’s very rare to see a band completely nail the delicate balance between these two genres, but every once in a while someone does manage to hit the bullseye, and this time that someone is Colorado’s own Vale of Pnath. I’ve been a massive fan of this band for years, and would even be so bold as to say that they are my all-time favorite technical death metal band. Yep, even more than Necrophagist or The Faceless or any of the other household names. They’ve always had an unparalleled knack for fun and intriguing songwriting, with every release sounding slightly different from its predecessor but never losing any strength or cohesiveness in the process. And now, they have proven themselves to be the masters of this concept once again with their newest full-length Between the Worlds of Life and Death.

To be fair, this isn’t Vale of Pnath’s first time experimenting with blackened elements; the band were already showing signs of heading in that direction on their 2019 EP Accursed, but back then they were just dipping their toes in to test the waters, whereas now, having found it to their liking, they are diving in headfirst and swimming like mako sharks. This time around, a plethora of components have all come together seamlessly, resulting in something that has unironically earned the moniker of “blackened tech death”. The lines between the two have been blurred to the point where it can be hard to tell where one ends and the other begins, which is exactly how it should be.

For example, when the first song “Silent Prayers” kicks in after a brief cinematic intro, it feels like something that could easily have been on The Apostasy or Evangelion (there’s that inescapable Behemoth influence again), but with an exceptionally groovy second half that is guaranteed to get stuck in your head. That shit is so much fun to listen to, and having been lucky enough to catch them on their most recent tour with Abigail Williams, I can tell you from personal experience that it is supremely mosh-worthy. But then the gears completely shift on the next track “Soul Offering”, which, aside from some appropriately creepy piano work, sounds and feels much more like that familiar tech death style we’ve come to associate them with. As an added bonus, this song also features the first of many guest guitar solos, this time by one Donny Burbage of Cradle of Filth and Aether Realm. They may be stepping into new territory and have brought a lot of friends along for the ride, but they haven’t forgotten where they came from either, and as such have taken great care to balance the music accordingly.

The next song “Shadow” strikes a nice equilibrium between the black and tech vibes, and features not one but two guest solos, yet another from Donny Burbage and the other from Matt Brown of Demon King, another solid tech death outfit out of Nashville. Never content with repeating themselves, they switch things up once more on the following song “Uncertain Tomorrow”, which is noticeably slower and plays around with significantly more open space, and also features a blistering guest solo from the incomparable Christian Münzner, whose name is practically synonymous with tech death at this point.

“Beneath Ashen Skies” swings the pendulum back the other way as it hits the ground running at full speed with rolling blast beats and a triumphant-sounding solo from, you guessed it, yet another guest performance courtesy of Interloper’s Miles Baker. They really pulled out the entire Rolodex for this one, creating a who’s-who of stellar guitarists that is sure to make any music nerd salivate.

It’s kind of appropriate if you think about it, because Vale have had a consistently rotating lineup since their inception, with the only constant being lead guitarist Vance Valenzuela. Their current roster consists of Abigail Williams mastermind Ken Sorceron, who gives a truly ferocious vocal performance, and drummer Gabe Seeber, who has filled in for a myriad of bands and uses that experience to flawlessly fit any mold he finds himself in. Naturally, his performance on this album is both stylish and nuanced, adding plenty of flair when the time is right but also recognizing when to take a step back to give someone else the spotlight or just let the rest of the music breathe. Ironically enough, this is also the exact same current Abigail Williams lineup, a phenomenon which I’ve been affectionately referring to as “Abi-Vale of Williams”. Clearly this trio are on a significant creative kick together, and I for one am loving it.

The final guest solo, courtesy of Michael Wilson from System Divide and more, appears on the seventh track “No Return, No Regret”, a fast and punchy whirlwind that feels a lot like modern day Aborted but with that requisite blackened tinge. Then, after another brief orchestral interlude (which really just feels like the intro to the next song and is one of the only weak points on the album, but that could just be my own bias talking), the final song “Burning Light” pulls out all the stops and leaves everything on the table with a flurry of rapid-fire breakdowns and darkly beautiful arrangements on the cello and piano. It actually feels a lot like the first Abigail Williams record but with slightly beefier production, which is unsurprising given who is at the helm. When that final burst hits and the ambient static fades away, the sense of finality it creates is both effective and appropriate. It is a fitting end to a very smartly written album that is sure to cement itself as a high point in the band’s already stellar discography.

The “blackened” trend might be running rampant at the moment, and who knows how long it’ll stick around, but if nothing else, at least we got this amazing album out of it. Ultimately, though, Vale of Pnath are a band that transcend and defy trends simply by knowing what they want and just going for it. Between the Worlds of Life and Death isn’t them capitalizing on the current landscape, but more of a happy coincidence. They themselves will tell you it wasn’t a conscious effort to write this music the way they did, it just sort of happened. Regardless of how it came to be, I’m glad it exists, and now I can say that my favorite tech death band are also one of my favorite black metal bands. Funny how these things play out sometimes.

Between the Worlds of Life and Death drops this Friday, May 24 via Willowtip Records. Pre-order your copy here.

Metal

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