1998, The End Records
There is something of a strange synchronicity between listening to this album and my earlier (about a month ago) rediscovery of Nocturnus. Nocturnus was one of those Earache bands from the early '90s that I felt never really received the respect due to them, because of their use of keyboards (which they did excellently) or their symphonic approach to composition, where they tried to take death metal stylistics and expand them through novel sounds and techniques of combining/layering guitar melodies. I even saw Nocturnus live once (this is a long time ago) when they came through on a tour with some other bands (Obituary, maybe?) and seeing them trying to reproduce their original 'The Key' album in a live setting was mesmerizing. I felt they had their fingers on the pulse of something important, and if they could only harness these new ideas successfully they would end up with an original vision that would place them in a special niche in the death metal scene. They have since come back into the picture with a fresh album, but that is a different story.
The purpose for this little digression is that it is an illustration of the kind of footnote Scholomance would gain in my memory if they didn't follow up this album with something that expands on the ideas featured here. This is a very original creation, but as it is a first album it serves mainly to introduce their ideas to the world, set a place for them, and categorize their potential. If this was a one-shot, for example, or a studio project, I would feel horrible knowing all the potential of this band remained relatively unexplored. This is the kind of band that must follow their own path to the end, and has a long journey ahead of them filled with the realizations and discoveries that only an original musical vision is heir to. Thankfully I know that Scholomance is about to follow up 'A Treatise on Love' with their second opus, due out soon.
What about this album, then? I think Scholomance are original because they approach the composition of metal from a direction that is completely different from most other bands. The music on this album is densely layered (often sounding like two or more albums stacked on top of each other in the 'listening space'), multi-textured, technically complex, runs through multiple styles and forms of metal (often in a two-minute section), and almost completely impervious to predictability (the first time I listened to it I was genuinely surprised when some of the songs ended - I didn't see it coming at all.) How do they accomplish this? They have freed themselves from the standards and boundaries of any specific genre or style of metal. Instead they often try to incorporate all the various styles into a new form, and approach the writing of the music from a strictly compositional standpoint, striving to create epic slices of sounds that are not so much songs (in the traditional understanding of that term) as movements in the classical or symphonic sense. I wouldn't be surprised to learn that Scholomance are as heavily influenced by avant-garde classical composers as they are by the more obscure forms of metal (there's a pointed Scriabin quote in the CD booklet). The division of the first four tracks on this album makes that clear: they are four parts of a single composition that are linked thematically, as in the structure of late quartets or a symphony. There is also the classically-influenced piano/keyboard track 'Snowfall' that strikes me as a powerful statement of intent instead of the kind of egotistical meandering that most metal musicians write when they want to show off their influences (see Morbid Angel). But even as this aspect of their approach is stressed throughout the nine tracks featured here, Scholomance are also highly influenced by jazz, in contrast, and that comes through in the way they allow the different instruments enough space and freedom to pursue the repetition of the main themes in the songs - the keyboards and guitar, especially, are often constantly spinning off variations and original improvisations on the main melodies of the compositions. I can't say exactly how much of the music on this album was carefully scripted and written down and how much was improvised, but it often sounds like a lot of the solo work (much like in jazz/fusion, the different instruments have opportunities to shine through individual soloing) was improvised on the spot, retaining the freedom of expression that is so important in jazz aesthetics.
It is not difficult to tell, however, that a great deal of thought went into the creation of these songs, as the rhythmic work is exciting, dynamic, and obviously very well planned. The drums carry the driving surge of these songs forward, and have the ability to change the style of the song in a second by shifting tempo or beat. A great example of this technique is the way that Scholomance can reference everything from traditional heavy metal to death metal to the blurring tempos of black metal in a single riff by the drums shifting beats and speed underneath the same guitar melody.
The most impressive selection on this record, for me, is the third part of the 'Treatise On Love' composition, entitled 'The Psychology of Demons and The Bitterness of Winter'. It starts out in a very somber mood, for the first few moments, with a keyboard section that mixes low angelic/demonic choruses of voices with an even lower dark melody, and then the drums and guitars enter with a pulsing psychedelic beat that is quickly accelerated to a crushing tribal maelstrom. Over all of this is a sample of Leonardo DiCaprio from the movie 'Total Eclipse' (I am guessing here, I could be completely mistaken about the source) musing on the bitter nature of love in this world. The song then shifts into utter technical chaos, drunkenly stumbling from side to side, rattled by quick stormblasts of snare and snapping rhythm guitar. Amazing, in all, because this is only the first minute of the song.
The guitar work here is really strong and varied, and I think Scott Crinklaw will be an instrumentalist to watch closely in the future. He obviously has a lot of respect and genuine enthusiasm for many different forms of metal, and his integrity shines through in the way that he attempts to reference many different styles while commanding them under his own dark vision. These different stylistic approaches are constantly summoned or evoked, but not in a gratuitous fashion - rather they are used to express, as widely as they can, the many different avenues of Scholomance's ability to explore their own obsessions. Thematic range and versatility are often the bane of guitarists in metal music, and it is refreshing to hear a musician who is not limited to one style or form of composition. As technically advanced as he may be, his playing his also filled with moments of rare emotion.
I eagerly await the new music from this band, and I hope that their talent will enable them to reach a style and method that they will be comfortable with - a vehicle of expression that will produce several works that can stand on their own merit as explorations of metal music's potential, and also as future milestones for the musicians that will come after them.