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Skepticism : Ordeal (Live)

Seven years on from their last release, Skepticism unveil their new work in front of an audience.

With a back catalogue of four albums and three EPs since 1995, the Skepticism legend is clearly not one based on saturating the market. The opposite, in fact: it's based on delivering impeccable slabs of Funeral Doom whenever they feel good and ready to do so, a process that we covered in some depth with this interview. So, some seven years after the last album, 'Alloy', saw the light of day, they felt not only ready, but in the mood for an experiment - by recording 'Ordeal' live (supplemented by session guitarist Timo Sitomaniemi), in front of an audience at the Klubi in Turku, in their native Finland. The results were studio mixed and mastered by the same team who covered 'Alloy', and the final package issued by Svart Records with a bonus DVD of the six live tracks being performed.

As far as the experiment goes, I'd probably call it a mixed success, inasmuch as the live aspect doesn't really add a great deal one way or the other. The audience are quiet, respectful, largely static throughout, and applause is limited to some polite clapping in the gaps when the band do actually stop between the tracks. The sound is quite polished and clear; the music tightly-executed and without obvious errors, making the one-take approach seem almost an irrelevance. In short, much of the time, it could just as easily have been a studio album - whether recorded 'live' there, or not. What is impossible to estimate, of course, is how much of a contribution the focus on getting it right in a single run-through - and the emotion of performing it in front of an audience - had on shaping the album's progress. In our interview, guitarist Jani offered "in my opinion we are more a live band than a studio band": something that 'Ordeal''s concept backs up, even if it doesn't have the participative feel of a typical live album.

In any case, it's the band's approach and the mixing process, far more than the recording format, which mould 'Ordeal', and both of these continue the sea-change that came with 'Alloy' (though it could be argued it was already being heralded by 'Farmakon'). The atmosphere of earlier material was crafted by an omnipresent murky, downtuned heaviness: indistinct, oppressive, and dark. 'Alloy' set much of that aside, with clarity and body of production, less distortion of instruments, and more of an emphasis in creating mournfulness and melancholy without permanently sitting in the lower registers of drop-tuning. Like that or not, as a listener, it's part of Skepticism's chosen process of development, and no surprise that they have chosen to explore it further here.

And, to my ears, it is a worthwhile path. It's allowed something of a progressive touch to shine through, illuminated the sometime tribal- or ritualistic-sounding rhythms in play, and given the instruments a more heterogenous range of options in which to roam: the result is still a heavy, stately Funeral Doom, but one that has ever more of a contrast between light and shade. If there is a flaw with this, it's that the vocals, having acquired a similar prominence and separation in the mix, don't always benefit from that. With such powerful, sonorous, and often quite monotone growls, it's hard to ignore the moments when they seem to be sitting flatly atop the music rather than working with it. Most of those come early on in the album - particularly on opening track 'You', where Matti sounds quite tense and forced, then loosening up as the evening progresses. It's a shame that the least favourable moments should be the initial ones, but they're comparatively fleeting and unrepresentative of how immersive 'Ordeal' becomes.

My very first impression was that this was a perfectly credible live album that just happened to be new songs. I've slightly revised that opinion with time, in that, although there is a more dynamic and slightly rougher feel to the club recordings over the bonus tracks, it's more like a studio work with subtly-added vitality. And, speaking of the bonus tracks: those provide an interesting illustration of the evolution in the band's core sound; no doubt they won't be to everyone's taste, but I actually prefer these clearer and more-defined versions. So, with all of the compositional and musical strengths and idiosyncracies that you'd expect in place - the heavy, organ sound substituting for bass, the exclusively-malleted drums, the prominent simple-yet-effectively flowing guitar lines, the hard-edged growls and sometimes spoken/shouted sections - this is, simply, a perfectly credible Skepticism album that builds positively on what 'Alloy' started.

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Reviewer's rating: 8.5/10


Tracklist :
1. You
2. Momentary
3. The Departure
4. March Incomplete
5. The Road
6. Closing Music
Bonus Studio Versions
7. Pouring
8. The March And The Stream

Duration : Approx. 78 minutes

Visit the Skepticism bandpage.

Reviewed on 2015-11-07 by Mike Liassides
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