Lurking behind the wall of trends and polished tides of sound are bands whose output dwells within stranger realms—unattached to the expectations of the masses. The English alchemists, Lychgate, (whose name you should have heard by now), return with their third album, and second for Blood Music, entitled The Contagion in Nine Steps. What the brainchild of keyboardist/vocalist/composer James Young (aka Vortigern) and drummer T.J.F. Vallely have wrought so far is a synthesized hybrid of classically influenced organ music and avant-garde black metal. The prior album, 2015's An Antidote For The Glass Pill, was truly a monumental collision between Lizst-inspired classical strains, basalt-heavy church organ, and frenetic black metal movements. The question, of course, is whether Lychgate is able to recapture the feeling on this their latest work.
Clearly artists who are not prepared to sit still, Lychgate appear to be taking their time on the compositions of their latest work. The opener "Republic" begins familiarly enough, the echoing keyboard and cinematic strains which overlap with excellent guitar work and the subterranean growl of Vortigern. The more subtle songwriting approach incorporates clean vocals that would make Solefald proud. The high-concept feeling is there and a bit toned down in mania than on prior works. Best appreciated in headphones, Vortigern provides some amazing keyboard work here. The menace returns though and ensures the song never gets lost up its own ass.
Where The Contagion In Nine Steps differs from its predecessor is in the way it hits the listener. Take the de facto title track, which spools up amid swells of keys and some quite adept clean vocals. Vortigern's matured songwriting has this one revealing its depths over time. Listen closely and one hears the classical influences but in a bit more accessible a presentation. It demands your attention, like a good novel. Multiple atmospheres exist inside the composition; the uncomfortable, horror-themed feeling from their prior album has settled down a bit. Instead, this atmosphere wraps the listener up in folds of sound that, though velvety, conceal a good deal of horror in their depths.
This is not to say that Lychgate can't bring straightforward heaviness. Album highlight "Hither Comes The Swarm" creeps into being, setting the mood as much of the album seems wont to do. It's not long before some exceptional double-bass drumming, masterful guitar leads, and the cavernous vocals of Greg Chandler amp up the experience for even the shortest of musical attention spans to savor.
One of this album's strengths is its ability to soothe the listener into a false sense of security. "Atavistic Hypnosis" begins with atmospheric prog, swathed in a horror aesthetic perfect for any moonlit walk. The comfort this engenders soon spirals into madness, with great clean vocals on top, as those signature organ keys take the song home into familiar Lychgate territory.
"Unity of Opposites" does this just as well. Guitar leads run aplenty and the aggressive bark of vocals offset the progressive trippiness. In this song, the adroit playing of bassist A.K. Webb is especially evident. This track even gets into some juicy shoe-gaze territory around 4 minutes in when pleasing guitar leads intersperse with a staccato percussive rhythm. The clean dual vocal truly fits in well here also. This is where Lychgate—who boasts members from bands like Esoteric and Ancient Ascendant—sound truly in sync here.
Wrapping up the album is the elongated outro "Remembrance." Hypnotic and soothing, it lacks the challenging bite of the rest of the album. Still effective nonetheless, it seems like a song that might have gone elsewhere had the band members pushed it. The ethereal vocals in the beginning half are haunting, even triumphant, around the 1:30 mark. They are a tactic the band should certainly employ more on future albums.
All told, Lychgate's third album serves to expand their sonic palette. If it is not as bombastic as its predecessor, The Contagion In Nine Steps shows a band paying a bit more heed to atmospherics; reigning in their feral classical-meets-black metal repertoire; peppering it with some subtleties. Superior musicianship, an excellent sense of dynamics, and a stellar array of vocal tools show that Lychgate is quite the formidable musical collective. It's about time they get their due from us fans.