Welcome to the latest edition of “Freeloader” in which we review albums that you don’t have to feel like a douche for downloading for free. Today Satan Rosenbloom checks out Shadows by Embers.

Immediacy is probably my favorite part about being a music consumer in the digital age. One moment I don’t know that the Oakland black metal band Embers exists. The next, the band’s seven years of woodshedding and recording efforts have turned into 250 megabytes on my hard drive. That’s a great thing for a listener (and especially a critic), because it loosens the need to hear albums as discrete elements, rather than parts of a continuum.

The continuum is key for a band like Embers. Since their 2007 debut Memoria In Aeterna (available for free download on their Bandcamp page), Embers have written unabashedly romantic black metal epics that breathe and grow and gleam black over shifting landscapes. Their first record was perhaps over-ambitious; those persistent viola lines added little, and while there were plenty of hair-raising moments, the songs seemed alternately labored and rudderless. But like Opeth’s Orchid, Embers’ early material was admirable for its free-flowing approach to songwriting, if not for the songs themselves.

Without changing anything fundamental about the Embers sound (other than ditching the viola), Shadows improves on its predecessors by channeling Embers’ serpentine structures into more consistently thrilling songs. There’s some powerful mojo in that tom-drum and guitar duel that revs up “Foresaken” (sic), and the band capitalizes on it by staying in the red for the rest of the song. Kelly Nelson and Timm Kennedy’s vocals smear and grate in tandem on “Plague,” a harsh analogue to the Krallice-like guitar twinning that evolves into some beautiful harmonies throughout. The 10-minute “Dreams” is an easy standout for its tension between airy buildup and doomy teardown. It says a lot that Embers’ longer songs are better; they’re learning to tame that continuum.

Shadows is a major improvement, but it’s still got some puzzling deficiencies. Strange that a band so open to expansive musical canvasses would be so tonally conservative. With the exception of “Awakening,” which first appeared on their 2009 split with Book of Belial, Embers avoid dissonance almost entirely — like they’re afraid of getting a little blood red splattered on their royal purple robes. And there’s also a curious predilection for swinging 6/8 time signatures. Good for Embers for fighting the tyranny of 4/4, but it forces their riffs into repetitive surge and crest patterns, when many of these songs warrant straightahead bashing. They alternate from one to the other during the first half “Awakening,” and wow, what an effect.

While it’s not a masterpiece, Shadows finds Embers perfecting an unassailable sense of dynamics. That alone is praise-worthy, so let’s hope that Embers keep on stoking their own creative fires.

(three out of five horns up)


Pay what you want for Shadows by Embers, right here.

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