On Coherence, Australia's melodic death metal masters, Be'lakor, make a welcome return after five years without a new studio recording. Although the album is unlikely to dethrone classics like Stone's Reach and Of Breath And Bone in the eyes of Be'lakor's most devoted fans, it nevertheless marks another excellent notch in this underrated band's incredible discography.
The modest size of Be'lakor's fanbase has always been a bit of a tough nut to crack. To date, their albums have been uniformly excellent and their progressive-inflected (and defiantly NOT Gothenburg) brand of melodic death metal is rocking enough to satisfy people who crave a true death metal experience, yet dynamic enough to please those who don't feel like listening to an hour of blast beats. And Be'lakor has always done a great job embracing the instrumental creativity of prog without falling into the excesses of overly showy technical demonstrations.
In the past I've categorized Be'lakor and the not dissimilar American band Cormorant as melodic death metal bands that sound like they are going to have a mix of death growls and clean vocals, but somewhere along the way decided to do only death growls. Of course, there's nothing wrong with a death metal band deciding to do only death metal vocals, but it's an unusual approach for bands whose instrumental part writing sounds like Be'lakor's. When a melodic death metal fan seeks out bands that employ songwriting that is so dynamic in its mix of tempos, intensities, textures, and acoustic and electric instrumentation, it's natural for those fans to want to see that same emotional breadth extended to vocals. This isn't meant to serve as a criticism, but rather as conjecture for why a band as incredible as Be'lakor has not seen greater international success.
Coherence finds Be'lakor playing to its strengths. Be'lakor's guitarists George Kosmas and Shaun Sykes have always had a seemingly inexhaustible supply of incredible riffs. A single great Be'lakor song has more great riffs than many bands muster on entire albums. "Valence," the fourth track on Coherence, is typical in this regard, running through what feels like a dozen fantastic riffs drawing on many of the coolest items in the metal rhythm guitar trick bag, including staccato open string harmonies, psychedelic strummed octave parts, doomy slowdowns, delay-laden single string melodies, tight palm muting, and mellow acoustic parts.
Like previous Be'lakor releases, Coherence displays an apparent conviction on the part of the band (one that I share) that 12/8 is the best time signature for writing awesome metal songs. Other bands clearly share this view, but Be'lakor seemingly has made the logical leap that if 12/8 is the best signature for writing metal, why bother writing songs in other time signatures? The vast, vast majority of this (and most) Be'lakor releases are characterized by the driving sense of internal self-propulsion that makes 12/8 such a perfect choice for metal. Other time signatures appear but they serve mostly as changes of pace from the 12/8 that dominates Coherence. It's a bold artistic choice but one that continues to work out for Be'lakor.
All in all, the incredible riffage, the driving 12/8 pulse of these songs, the supremely dynamic approach to instrumental part-writing, and the prog-inflected, non-Gothenburg melodic death metal stylings (including George Kosmas’s fantastic death growls) make Coherence another winner and an album well-deserving of a spot on many year end lists.
But how does it compare to Be'lakor's previous work? Coherence is a more mature outing, displaying growth in the five years that have passed since their last album. The arrangements are more complex, more textural, and are given added impact by a stunning Jens Bogren mix. Standout tracks like the aforementioned "Valence," "Hidden Windows," and album closer "Much More Was Lost" are as good as anything Be'lakor has ever done. But on the whole, I find myself involuntarily banging my head a bit less often than I do when listening to their older material. It may be that the more ambitious arrangement approach on Coherence is also initially more impenetrable and will, upon enough listens, yield greater pleasure. But I listened to the album quite a few times and think that it is unlikely at this point to take the crown in my book as Be'lakor's greatest. My hunch is that Be'lakor's greatest is yet to come, when Be'lakor figures out how to apply the more complex and nuanced arrangements of Coherence without diluting the fist-pumping immediacy of their classic albums.
But those criticisms only bring down Coherence relative to other Be'lakor albums—albums that rank as highwater marks of the subgenre. Coherence is an outstanding melodic death metal album and is highly recommended to metal fans of all persuasions.