Monday 23 June 2014

Sunwolf - Midnight Moon/Beholden To Nothing And No One (Double review)

Leeds instrumental band Sunwolf have achieved a lot since their inception on 2012, having released their debut record Beyond The Sun in the same year and followed it up with Midnight Moon in 2013, which allowed them to tour Europe and play with the likes of Chelsea Wolfe. Having witnessed them play in Leeds last year, alongside a mixed bill of bands where they managed to come as my standout, I was really excited when Matt was gracious enough to e-mail me and ask me to review their new album, Beholden To Nothing And No One. I've taken the opportunity to turn this into a double review alongside 2013's Midnight Moon.

As many people who read this blog will know, for me art and music go hand in hand. I like bands that have an aesthetic that matches what they create and knowing that Sunwolf take control of all elements of their art, makes them the perfect example of that. In times when music is becoming more and more throw-away, the need for bands like Sunwolf becomes even greater. Hopefully this feature will make you feel the same way.

Re-winding back to 2013, Sunwolf's second record Midnight Moon was released. It was pressed onto white vinyl via Ark Noise, Speedowax and Invektiv Records and came just as the band set out on a tour of the UK and mainland Europe. It was released on limited tour CD by the band and later as part of a double tape set, alongside their debut album Beyond The Sun. 


1. Sellanraa
2. Prey To Melancholy
3. Midnight Moon
4. Mortar & Bricks
5. Breach
6. In Ernest
7. Plateau Pt 1
8. Plateau Pt 2
9. Glacier River

Opener Sellanraa is slow to build, with ambience slowly but surely increasing in volume. The drums make their first appearance just over two minutes, as does the feedback drenched guitar. This is the noise-laden instrumental bastard son of doom and sludge, miss the vocals but with added atmosphere. It’s one hell of an opening tome. Sunwolf play with less obvious song structures during Prey To Melancholy. It’s not as instantly hypnotic as Sellanraa was, yet the swathes of fuzz that envelope the guitars keep a level of momentum going and even during the chuggy section the low-end produces brooding and subtle melody that keeps things on track. There is minimalism hidden in the song too, where the noise gives way to lightly melodic passages and moments of silence.

There’s no moment for breathe and the title track instantly takes over, following the minimalism first used in Prey To Melancholy. The droning bass-line in the background is buried amongst gentle, sensitive guitar playing. it brings ti mind the feeling of staring over a barren desert plain. It’s only a fleeting moment though, as just when you’re getting settled the noise levels rise with cymbal crashes and slow, yet forceful riffs. If you listen carefully and diligently to Midnight Moon, you’ll notice that the songs get shorter the further you go through the album. There’s not a sense of urgency as such, more a feeling of experimentation and variation as Mortar & Bricks plays out, featuring percussion not yet heard of the record in the shape of a glockenspiel, played by drummer Dominic Deane. 

When I first started writing over four years ago, I viewed instrumental music with a certain amount of trepidation. I felt that without vocals, it wasn’t real music. I was obviously wrong then, as since I have witnessed some amazing instrumental bands. Seeing local Leeds band Khuda play at ‘Kin Hell Fest this year was amazing and having the opportunity to see Sunwolf in an intimate setting like the upstairs room at The Fenton was equally as spellbinding. Breach reminds of that night, in between the raging grind and heavy death metal, when for a moment time stood still and crowd stood transfixed. 

Sunwolf mix light percussion with more straight-forward guitar playing during In Earnest, which is a short acoustic piece that carries you into the second half of the album. From here on, Midnight Moon follows a slightly different formula. Instead of noise, they focus on haunting, shorter songs hat feature more ambience and sound effects. The fog-horn like sound that rings out during Plateau Pt 1 hints at peril to come. Plateau Pt 2 is equally as dramatic, but this time featuring more drone and scary walls of noise that layer between the ambience. Ending with the soothing piano of Glacier River, which has been run through electronics to make it sound pretty unsettling, Sunwolf leave you feeling a dazed and confused, yet also empowered. This is improvisational and original, without being inaccessible.

Back in present day and as mentioned in the opening paragraph, Sunwolf are about to release their new album, Beholden To Nothing And No One a mere twelve months after Midnight Moon. Spread across two CD's, featuring fourteen songs and a myriad of guests, it's a big step forward for the band and highlights their will to evolve.

Tracklist CD1:- 

1. In The Darkened River I Found The Silence Loom
2. The Widows Oil
3. Vultures Crown
4. The Wake of Leviathan
5. Thrown Into A Nameless Time
6. Totem
7. Beholden To Nothing And No One
8. Heathens Rest

Tracklist CD2:-

9. Twelve Sunne
10. Come O Spirit, Dwell Among Us
11. Ithaca
12. Symptoms of Death
13. Lotus Island
14. Of Darknesse

Beholden To Nothing… takes the structure and ideas that were formed in Midnight Moon and builds on them tenfold. It’s the first time that Sunwolf have used vocals as a part of their music. Opener In The Darkened River I Found The Silence Loom, features guest vocals from Tiffany Strom of dark ambient bands Myyths and Fvnerals. It begins with their own signature ambience, with droning and building feedback. It feels like the song was built around Tiffany’s vocals, with gentle guitar backing them up during the verses. The introduction of violin, played by Alex Hannan from Band of Hope Union, adds another dimension to the song and an eerie sense of foreboding. In The Darkened River… signals the ambition of Sunwolf and lays the foundations for something special.

The Widows Oil features the minimalistic instrumental layers that were used in Midnight Moon, but thanks to a stronger production, they stir up more emotion in the listener. The guitar and piano creating stop/start melodies that sit atop of quiet layers of noise. They project an altogether different image with Vultures Crown, which is the first slab of doom to feature a guest appearance from BongCauldron’s Ben Corkhill. It’s pretty claustrophobic compared to the opening two tracks on Beholden… but then that’s to be expected. If you’ve ever seen BongCauldron live, you’ll know how heavy they are. This song shows another side to Sunwolf, one that’s more menacing. Ben adds his deep bellow to The Wake of Leviathan as well, which is more improvisational and features a low-end like no other. 

The thing that really strikes me about Beholden… is the way that the songs seem to crafted with their guests in mind. Thrown Into A Nameless Time takes a more laid-back perch on the first CD, with vocals from Phillip Flock of Aleph Null. The harmonies give the song an occult feel, before the off-kilter mid section wakes you up. The chanting and the building volume toward the end takes you back to the droning early days of the band. Even with my limited repertoire of descriptive musical terms, Sunwolf are able to enhance their sound further with each song. Totem, though short in comparison to others on CD1, still permeates with the sound of tight-knit musical ideas and forms a sombre piece of music, that has the punch and underlying melody to get trapped inside your head. Now I’m sure that Sunwolf didn’t set out to make their music catchy, but somehow they manage it here. 

Alex Hannan makes another appearance on the title track, which marks a return to the melodic ambience of the album's opener. It’s the penultimate chapter in the expansive first side of the record and after the dissonance filled songs that preceded it, it’s a welcome shift in tone and feel. The first CD closes as it started, with the soothing tones of Tiffany Strom on Heathens Rest. This is the longest song on the album as just over ten minutes and it builds very slowly, with mournfully plucked guitar and prolonged pauses. This is a great way to end the first side of the album, as the calming movements cleanse you after the earlier section of doom-filled heaviness. The guest saxophone played by Sarah Tyler is another welcome addition and helps make Heathens Rest my favourite song on Beholden To Nothing… so far.

CD2 is shorter and at first it seems more menacing, with the low tones of opener Twelve Sunne. Sunwolf align this song to that of the songs on Midnight Moon, with more ambience and a solely instrumental vibe. The second side feels more like one big movement, split into section as Twelve Sunne flows straight into Come O Spirit, Dwell Among Us. There isn’t as much percussion going on, as Sunwolf allow more noise to permeate through the music. This is the strangest song on the album so far, but in a good way. It sounds like something that would be dreamt up by Sutekh Hexen. The trumpet of John Scully makes it’s first guest appearance on Ithaca, which at time reminds me of the haunting instrumental music of 28 Days Later, but with some John Coltrane mixed in. On Symptoms of Dearth both saxophone and trumpet come together to move the atmosphere even further away from what it was. It’s great that Sunwolf allow time to explore a lighter side to their musical palette and one which breathes life into the latter part of the album.

Lotus Island includes Native American-like chanting and it’s not at all out of place on Beholden… such is the length of Sunwolf’s vision. As a penultimate song, it’s sombre and uneventful when held up against the rest of Sunwolf’s output here, but it still fits in. Of Darknesse opens with beautiful piano and feels very up-lifting. Perhaps there was a reason for Lotus Island sounding the way it did, as it brings out something special in Of Darknesse. Beholden To Nothing And No One is a journey meant to taken in one sitting. You can’t dip in and out of it and you shouldn’t. Music needs albums like this to survive, to grow and to thrive. Even if you’re not an extreme metal or indeed a metal fan at all, you will still find plenty to immerse yourself in here. From the droning dissonance, to the sublime jazz orchestration, this album blows your mind at every turn. I don’t think Sunwolf will top this!

You can stream the entire album via Sunwolf's bandcamp page here, where you can also purchase the CD version and download:-

Or you can buy both physical copies of Beholden.. and Midnight Moon here

Sunwolf Facebook -
Ark Noise Facebook -

If you want to check out the projects of Sunwolf's guests, you can do below:-

Tiffany Strom/Myyths - and Fvnerals -
Ben Corkhill/BongCauldron -
Phillip Flock/Aleph Null -
Alex Hannan/Band of Hope Union -

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