Last Christmas I was given a copy of Andrew Lang’s Fairy Book, a collection of traditional folk stories from around the world. This weighty tome has occupied a constant place by my bedside ever since. I love fairytales- the strange, illogical stories brimming with fear, joy, weird characters, baffling cultural illusions and (most of the time) a whole lot of death are a constant source of delight. Some of my favourite music works on me in the same way, conjuring up that sense of wonder though a mix of beauty and weirdness, spectacle and dissonance.
Cairiss do just that with their debut EP Fall, a post black metal gem with a distinctly fairytale-like sense of gothic drama and theatricality. Moving past the standard blast beats and abrasive guitars of the genre they craft sweeping epics filled with angelic singing, monstrous screams and heroic guitar soloing. Their folksy, pagan melodies carry a hint of Nightwish or Within Temptation (back when those bands were good) and the fearsome muscle of their riffing calls to mind Opeth (again…back when they were good), fleshed out with the sense of symphonic grandeur that has marked Ihsahn’s solo career. Cairiss impressed me right away with its unique vision of extreme metal but ultimately it was the crafty, unpredictable songwriting that made Fall one of the best metal releases of the year so far.
RELEASE DATE: 06 June 2016 LABEL: Self-released
Opener “For the Lives He Stole” begins with the kind of soft, ominous acoustic guitar passage that practically screams out “things are about to get really heavy and awesome” when used to open a metal album. But when the gurgling guitars and pulverising drums do arrive they’re accompanied not by your typical strangled shrieking, but by Freya Jane Brown’s soaring, stunning soprano. Her haunting melodies hang over the rush of distortion and chaotic percussion like a bat in the night sky, and when she switches to her agonised shriek it hits with the rush of a hawk divebombing the forest below. The music twists and turns, guiding you through all kinds of different styles and emotions without ever getting lost or bogged down in excess. Over its twelve minutes “For the Lives He Stole” traverses everything from dissonant, despairing black metal to triumphant, uplifting post rock and gentle interludes that separate sections like lulls in a fierce battle. Through all the peaks and dives the atmosphere remains both darkly unsettling and tragically, breathtakingly beautiful. The dazzling guitar fireworks saved for the final minutes push the song to even greater heights, leaving a sense of sheer awe as the song closes.
“Disgraced” follows a more straightforward path, returning to the same majestic folk melody in various degrees of heaviness as the symphonic strings sweep and Connor Frapwell’s drums plough ahead relentlessly. The detours into forlorn prog rock show off Brown’s impressive range as a vocalist, as well as her ability to temper even the fiercest guitar onslaught with a touch of serene beauty. Even at this early stage in their career Cairiss show a willingness to step outside the confines of heavy metal entirely if it suits the needs of the song. This is most evident on the title track, which stays at the level of frosty acoustic guitar picking and Brown’s softer-than-a-whisper vocals for six of its eight minutes, winding and unravelling until the sense of apprehension is agonising. When the payoff finally comes it’s an absolute knockout- there’s not a harsh vocal or double bass beat to be heard but the simplicity of the crashing guitars, melodic bass and blissfully dark vocals is devastating.
Cairiss’ debut runs to a respectable 30 minutes and while the increased run time of a full length LP would certainly help some of their ideas to develop, as a statement of intent from a young band Fall is very hard to fault. On a technical level it sounds brilliant, with each instrument given the right amount of space and the guitars hitting the right balance between rawness and clarity. The softer moments deserve special mention for the palpable tension brought by the echoey, natural sound. There’s even enough room for Ethan Bishop’s fluid bass playing to take centre stage for a lead melody or two- when was the last time that happened on a record ostensibly operating under the black metal umbrella? Honestly I was totally blown away by this EP- in a genre too often hung up on extremity and technicality, Cairiss have delivered a set of songs that’s accessible, powerful and fiercely beautiful. If they can maintain this level of quality for a full album their story is destined to become the stuff of legend.