“Chasms,” the sophomore album from Oakland, CA’s Lycus and their Relapse Records debut, opens with a chaos both jarring and appropriate at the same time. “Solar Chamber,” one of only four songs on the album (though they are all 10-plus minutes long), starts with an explosive guitar chord, accompanied by pounding drums and layers of reverb. Once mournful baritone vocals come in, the atmosphere is set. The vocals are there only to guide the listener further into an expansive darkness from which they cannot escape until the album is over. For me, it was as if I had been shoved into an abyss. A chasm, if you will.
Though the album only features four tracks— “Solar Chamber,” the eponymous song, “Mirage” and “Obsidian Eyes”—“Chasms” is a massive record. Like all funeral doom metal, everything is slow and low, the vocals a mix of the aforementioned baritone, death growls and high-pitched shrieks. The lyrics are depressing (“This wretched body/ The prison of the soul/ Weighted by the chains of depression/ I could never bear to let you in”), and the cover art by Italian metal artist Paolo Girardi is creepy and evokes melancholy.
But “Chasms” is also very much its own thing: The vocals are often recorded in harmonized parts, and the production by Jack Shirley is sunny, in a weird way. Every second of the album’s 44 minutes is stuffed with music, not all of it traditional doom. The second song and title track has a sludgy bridge, and there are a couple of moments later on where everything gets faster and wilder, almost like an Isis song. Lycus are still a doom metal band, but unlike most traditionalist doom like St. Vitus (or more recently, Pallbearer), their music is kind of uplifting as it progresses. Everything sounds so huge, something Shirley also achieved in his production work with Deafheaven, so that “Chasms” feels more like a journey through space than a funeral march.
Also, Lycus just works incredibly well together as a band. “Chasms” is Lycus’ first album with two guitarists, and the soaring melodies and riffs work together to create an extra texture of sound. Drummer/vocalist Trevor Deschryver’s washes of cymbals and creative use of blast beats provide a base layer of intensity, a layer well supported by bassist Bret Tardiff. The third song, “Mirage,” is a great example of how tight the band is, starting off with slow guitar arpeggios, chugging bass and a warlike drum beat, accentuated with violin. Then around a minute into the song, the guitars become distorted and the guttural growls burst in for a while, before returning to the same slowness of the intro.
By the time “Mirage” reaches its final, shrieking assault, it is eminently clear that Lycus knows how to play well together and how to surprise their audience. “Obsidian Eyes,” the album’s epic 12-minute closing song, brings in the band’s black metal influences, mixing howling guitar feedback, screams and the mournful baritone. It is an uplifting culmination of the whole record, and I’ll be damned if it doesn’t create an atmosphere. Still, the atmosphere is not inaccessible. Overall, “Chasms” is a fantastic and creative addition to recent doom metal and shares both the atmospheric tradition of its stylistic elders and the experimental brutality of modern pioneers like Thou. It’s tough, it’s dark and it’s long, but “Chasms” is a worthwhile listen for any metal fan.