In a short span of time, Sweden's heavy dark-rock unit Noctum has risen from a promising independent to a force to be reckoned with, touring Europe shortly after the release of their first album (2011's Séance, which was also the band's original name) and signing to Metal Blade Records last year. For their second full-length studio project Final Sacrifice, the quartet of frontman/guitarist David Indelöf, guitarist Daniel Johansson, bassist Tobias Rosén and drummer Fredrik Jansson made the daring choice of tackling an old school horror concept album in the vintage progressive rock & metal tradition – emphasizing the darker, heavier elements of their sound for a Lovecraftian tale of occult ceremonies, evil forces and resurrected corpses. It's probably no accident the record makes its North American debut just in time for Halloween, because it's the ideal accompaniment for a haunted night's festivities.
At first listen, Final Sacrifice doesn't necessarily come off as “horror music,” in that it's not drenched in cinematic sound design and dark ambient atmosphere; according to the band, each song was conceived as a chapter in an unfolding horror story (although the central theme is not revealed), and the emphasis on storytelling is evident. With that said, the band doesn't overplay the horror card at the expense of musical quality, instead packing the record with tight, catchy riff-filled songs that balance a '70s hard rock vibe with '80s heaviness and a raw, organic tone. If you're not listening specifically for horror themes, you'll still take away plenty of memorable melodies... but turning your attention to the lyrics will unlock a much spookier world.
Noctum's strengths come across best on tracks like “Liberty in Death,” which features extremely strong vocals from Indelöf, smoothly blending '70s and '80s vocal styles. As you can hear, the riffs are dark and ominous, but up-tempo enough to lift the songs out of the sludgy domain dominated by countless doom-metal bands who play in the long, imposing shadow of Black Sabbath, and their melodic hooks are rock-solid. Powerful, high-rolling and occasionally thrashy cuts like “A Burning Will” rank among the strongest examples of this sonic balance, which also helps to maintain a constant feeling of tension and suspense.
The influence of bands like Mercyful Fate (especially frontman King Diamond, whose signature falsetto Indelöf occasionally summons) is especially effective in capturing tales of terror, and there's enough aggression to keep the energy levels high – even after a few rustic side trips into classical-tinged concept rock (like the flute melody on “The Revisit,” in the mode of Jethro Tull's Ian Anderson), and some thick doom chords. While the spirit of Sabbath is summoned as well, it's more in the mode of that band's bluesier elements, as you can hear clearly on the instrumental “Deadly Connection.” One of the strongest cuts on Final Sacrifice is the colossal “Temple of the Living Dead,” which gets right down to business with the speediest riffs and shreddage on the record, leading into the ultra-dark closer “Azoth,” which fuses the band's varied styles and influences into a tapestry of terror.
Final Sacrifice proves that Noctum can call on the best aspects of vintage metal and doomy hard rock, employing rich organic textures and impressive vocals to effectively capture a tense, haunted mood. While the horror story that unfolds within these songs is sometimes understated, the atmosphere is still distinctly dark, and I quickly find myself caught in its spell. The record drops tomorrow via Metal Blade... and here's an epic taste to tide you over in the meantime, in the form of the lyric video for “Temple of the Living Dead!”