A Review of the 'Aarni/Umbra Nihil Split' by Monsieur Morte of Metal Coven

First release from Firebox, which was formerly a mere online record store, is a split record with Aarni and Umbra Nihil, two new doom metal bands from Oulu, Finland. Firebox has released a couple of records after this one, and is clearly specializing in doom with bands like My Shameful (along with the above mentioned) in their roster. Both of the bands on this split are due to release their debut full-length albums sometime in the autumn of 2003, and those releases are well worth waiting for.

The CD has 6 tracks by Aarni (tracks 1-6) and 5 by Umbra Nihil (7-11). Since it has almost 80 minutes of creeping slow doom, that is rather heavy on the listener's mind, it might be reasonable to listen to it in two portions - one for each band. The reviewer learned this by experience, so you can take his word for it without taking too great risks. Before putting the CD in the player, these two bands were relatively unknown to yours truly. Therefore this split was an extremely pleasant surprise to him. Not knowing what to expect (except for the doom part) made it necessary to have completely open mind, which was a great help in learning to appreciate this record. It should be pointed out, that this record is definitely not the most accessible doom metal on the market, although it did not take that many listens to get what the music is about, after all.

Aarni is a doom band that leans a bit on the experimental side, incorporating folk influences, different noises and instruments unorthodox to metal to more simple and traditional doom metal sound, which, I guess, could be said to be some sort of funeral doom. Aarni's music is sometimes naively simple, and yet strangely complex. According to the bands website, lyrics are written in whatever language suites the song best. This record includes songs in English, Finnish and classic Latin. The band also has songs in French and and ancient Egyptian, which however, did not end up on this CD.

The record opens with "Ubbo-Sathla", which is clearly designed to warn the listener of what is to come. It is an instrumental, which is made of different noises (guitar, other instruments and heaven knows what) and creates a feel of pure dark psychedelia. "This record is not going to be conventional music!" it seems to scream and leaves the listener confused. However, the warning is bit too strong, since "Ubbo-Sathla" is definitely the weirdest track on this split, and even itself becomes less and less weird as your ears get used to it. Another instrumental, "Anima", ends Aarni's part of the split. It, however, is not nearly as strange as "Ubbo-Sathla". The first track with vocals is shamanistic, mellow and beautiful "Myrrys", the only Finnish song that reached the CD. It is rather dark and atmospheric, and probably could be labeled the most accessible of Aarni's tracks (none of which are pop or even hard rock). The track that stands out the most in the reviewer's opinion, is the eerie Lovecraftian masterpiece "Reaching Azathoth". It captures Lovecraftian atmosphere perfectly, being disturbing and extremely apprehensive. This song makes the listener believe in the ancient gods of the Cthulhu mythology for a while, however sceptic atheist he may be. Flutes are used brilliantly to create a spooky atmosphere, and blatantly infernal vocals (that make many black metal bands sound lame) are a glorious crown of thorns on the entity's head. Other two tracks, "Transcend Humanity" and "Liber Umbrarum vel Coniunctio", are by no means any weaker than those already mentioned in this review (except for perhaps "Reaching Azathoth"), and after the truly fascinating and interestingly challenging listening experience, the listener certainly has serious doubts whether this band is even capable of releasing a weak track. My first personal thought was "What the fuck?!?", and I had to listen to it all over again before going to Umbra Nihil's tracks. Only reason for complaint is the sound production (which is merely adequate). This must be due to inadequate funds. With richer production and perhaps even orchestration, these songs could be doom metal anthems to remember for generations to come. Now they fall just a little short of it. Their debut full-length should really be worth the anticipation, judging by this split.

Umbra Nihil are a little bit more traditional doom metal group, although their material having a spot on this record can be easily justified. They do not sound too different from Aarni, and the difference only brings diversity to this CD. A split record having two bands that sound exactly alike could, in fact, be rather boring after a while. Umbra Nihil has definitely less experimental parts than Aarni, and sounds kind of like earlier Katatonia (rather distantly, however). The songs lean heavily on slow melodic riffs and leads, and vocals (low doom metal growling) play merely a supporting role. All this together creates a genuine and crushingly heavy (in the traditional sense) doom metal atmosphear, which is sure to please fans of this genre.

Out of Umbra Nihil's five songs on this split, the first one "Follow and Believe/Fall without Relief" stands out along with the fourth track "Determination". These two songs are still interesting after quite a few spins in the CD player. Others are not bad, either, but unfortunately tend to have an air of mediocrity, at times. All of the songs have their moments, but some parts have started to sound a bit average, to me personally, at least. It might have to do with this reviewer not being the world's biggest doom fan, and therefore losing interest rather quickly when nothing particularly interesting seems to happen for a lengthy while. Umbra Nihil would be much better, if they used more extraordinary elements in their songs. Now their material can sound frighteningly normal after a proportion of Aarni. However, we must keep in mind that this is not the case all the time, and there still are some amazingly glorious moments and interesting riffs going on in their music. A dedicated doom fan should be able to get much more out of Umbra Nihil, than a black/death metal and goth fan like myself.

Another thing that slightly bothers me is the drum and guitar sound. The drum sound seems to fit well for "Determination", but it sounds kind of hollow in other songs. The guitars should definitely have more crunch. Again we have the problem of not having enough money to do the recording in an expensive state of the art studio, which would really enhance Umbra Nihil's material, if used properly. They obviously have the potential of sounding really heavy and massive. All UN tracks on this split were taken from their promo CD "Enough, or Too Much!", and were recorded in a home studio. That explains a lot, although the tracks were obviously remastered for this split..

To sum it all up, a split CD like this is a convenient way to get to know new bands, and even find new favorites. The price is reasonable, so there is no great financial risk, and you definitely can get your money's worth. I recommend this CD to everyone, but especially for all doom metal fans.