Late 2013 saw the return of Italian avant-metallers Ephel Duath after nearly four years away, releasing both the EP On Death and Cosmos (buy it from Amazon) and the full-length Hemmed By Light, Shaped By Darkness (buy it from Amazon). As they’ve done on virtually every release, the band is sporting a new lineup, led by guitarist, sole remaining original member and mastermind Davide Tiso and completed by vocalist Karyn Crisis, Bryan Beller (bass, Hemmed By Light…), Steve DiGiorgio (bass, On Death and Cosmos) and drummer Marco Minnemann.

These new recordings signal somewhat of a return to form for the band. While reviews of 2009’s Through My Dog’s Eyes, a concept album told from the perspective of Tiso’s pooch, mention the album’s complexity, an honest overview of the band’s discography reveals this was actually the group at its most stripped down and melodic. These new recordings harken back to Ephel Duath‘s previous two albums, 2003’s The Painter’s Palette and 2005’s Pain Necessary to Know, in style. Both were labyrinthine monoliths, defined by twisting guitar lines and nearly incomprehensible song structures.

Of Death and Cosmos and Hemmed By Light, Shaped By Darkness may not quite go as far out as those early recordings did, but each disc will still require multiple listens to fully grasp.  The one thing they do have in common with Through My Dog’s Eyes is the prevalence of heavier, distorted guitars as opposed to the primarily clean tones found on the two earlier albums. Think more King Crimson, less Henry Cow. And the guitar and melody lines do tend to resolve a bit more cleanly, whereas the earlier albums frequently left the listener dangling over a precipice of tangled riffs.

The addition of Karyn Crisis is also noteworthy. Best known for her unconventional vocal work with New York hardcore/death metal act Crisis in the 1990s, she is now Tiso’s wife and Ephel Duath‘s vocalist. This is not merely a matter of convenience, though; her distinctive approach lends itself well to the avant-garde metal troupe’s music. For instance, on the aforementioned The Painter’s Palette, the group employed two different (male) vocalists, one harsh and the other more clean and melodic. Now, Karyn eliminates the need for two vocalists by bridging the gap between harsh and melodic vocals, pitching her screams to follow the harmonic structure of the music. She also stretches her vocal lines across measures, starting in one measure and ending somewhere in the next, an approach echoed across all the instruments.

This group approach is well illustrated on the Hemmed by Light track “When Mind Escapes Flesh,” where measures swell and shrink at will and each band member finds their own path through the structure. Karyn’s lines are sinuous, often double-tracked and pitching higher at the end of verses, while Tiso’s guitar makes many of its strongest statements in the pauses between lines of vocals. The bass falls in and out of unison with the guitar, emphasizing certain parts and branching out on its own at other times. Minnemann’s drums anchor the whole thing in place, but with the technical flair one would expect in this musical environment.

Ephel Duath is an anomaly within the Italian scene, which is best known for its black metal bands like Aborym and Abgott, as well as the garish power metal of Rhapsody of Fire and similar acts. One would have to dig deep to find Italian bands of the same ilk as these gonzo metalheads, perhaps back to the progressive madness of Premiata Forneria Marconi (PFM) or Area, or more currently Deus Ex Machina. Ephel Duath, however, are a scene unto themselves, a group cutting its own path through the metal underground and dragging their jazz and progressive tendencies right along with them. These releases represent a revitalized Ephel Duath, marrying their ever-present complexity to an increased heaviness, and with a new lineup that comes across more focused than the group’s ever been.

Allen Griffin

[Allen Griffin is the pen name of a member of Coffinworm. Coffinworm‘s new album IV.I.VIII was released March 18; buy it from Amazon.]

Stream Hemmed By Light, Shaped By Darkness:

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