To the casual observer, raw black metal is a constrained and limited art form. From the vantage point of 2023, it's all been done before and listeners should be resigned to the style's predictability. But this superficial view does a disservice to the creative fires that never stop burning in the hearts of black metal devotees. Connecticut's Ritual Clearing is one such collective of practitioners bringing their own unique forces of nature to bear. In the case of Penitence, it's through an absolute hurricane of riffs, screams and rhythms that demands our immediate attention.
I was fortunate enough to see the band play recently at Lucky 13, alongside One Master and I, Destroyer, and got to witness this ferocity first-hand. Like the music on this record, the band's performance was both stern and forceful, but also contemplative and understated. Vocalist DM looks in all directions as he delivers his dark sermons, while the band around him remains focused and intent on their craft. Oh, and since it was Halloween they threw candy into the crowd. Said candy included Sour Patch Kids. Whether or not this unintentionally pandering to my junk-food preferences has influenced this review I will leave to the reader.
The album opens with the thrilling charge of "Burn," a song that reminds me a lot of The Black House-era Krieg, though it weaves a riffing pattern all its own. The song is also a great example of the band's ability to blend different tempos to build up dramatic tension, especially the with the fist-pumping romp at the end. Though if you just want things to stay fast and loud, the title track is probably your jam — especially if you miss Cosmic Church, who popped into my head immediately when I heard the various spiraling guitar lines.
"Cold, Forever" plays like a funeral procession, or the entrance of a medieval army through a city devastated by the Black Death. This is the song for the long drives home after a show, a soundtrack for thinking things over. "Deathfog" emerges from the fog and features some of the album's coolest guitar work. You know something is good when you think to yourself "Yeah, I wouldn't have thought of that riff."
The last two tracks are re-recorded versions of "Void" and "Mensis" from the band's 2020 demo. I'm more partial to "Void" myself, although the d-beat-power of "Mensis" is hard to deny, along with the section at the end that simply pummels you again and again.
Production-wise, the album is picture perfect. It his that sweet spot where it's produced just well-enough where you can hear everything, but still raw enough where you really feel the music. This is a black metal album, not a Unique Leader tech-death album. At the same time, it's good that the drums aren't totally buried and the reverb isn't so insane that you don't catch the grit from the vocals. The guitar and bass tones form the foundation of the band's sound, and thus allow the vocals and drums to build on top of that.
The only things I'd suggest on future releases would perhaps be some sort synth-based or instrumental tracks to break up the longer songs a bit more — something to make it feel more like a cohesive album than a collection of seven songs that happen to be on the same release. The end comes so abruptly after "Mensis" that it feels like something is missing.
Otherwise, this is a great album from a band destined to do great things. Let the ritual continue, gentlemen.