Day of wrath and doom impending, heaven and Earth in ashes ending, Virgin Black’s resurgence nearing… and the silence was broken. Adelaide’s once leading doom metal/gothic band Virgin Black have reappeared, 10 years after their sudden unannounced departure, to release the conclusion to their Requiem album trilogy, Pianissimo.
Over the years, the music of Virgin Black has been evolving; staying true to their melancholic vision, the band has experimented with stylistic vehicles like avant garde metal, doom metal, electronic and industrial metal (primarily on the Trance EP in 1998), and the ever-incremental shift towards theatrical and orchestral elements became more prominent from Sombre Romantic onwards. Now onto their seventh release, the long-awaited Requiem – Pianissimo is an entirely orchestral album performed by the Adelaide Symphony Orchestra and the Adelaide Stamford Academy Choir, produced by six audio engineers and funded entirely by the composers Sesca Scaarba (formerly Samantha Escarbe) and Rowan London themselves. Offering eight tracks of classical catastrophic doom, it promises to be a historical achievement for the band.
The album’s opener ‘Requiem Aeternum’ commences quietly; dark sounding horns and a rolling timpani flow in a subtle crescending and then decrescending waft like a cool and eerie breeze that flows past you—then comes the heart-starter. With melodic textures of horror and despair blending with Rowan’s powering vocals in unison with the haunting theme, the dynamic lifts as if to jump you from behind, holding the dramatic emotion until the hairs on the back of your neck are standing to attention. Now we’re awake, the dynamic softens to a sinister cello line and church bells. The music stops. The cellos continue their malevolent walking vamp of A minor to Ab Major, pivoting from the F below (the inverted minor 6th)—darkness in one footstep, concern in the other. The height of the nefarious drama lifts and persists in dissonant use of non-functional harmony, moving upward a minor 3rd to B minor and up again to Eb minor (a flat 5th above A), setting itself up for a demonic tritone shift back to A minor, and into the vamp again.
The next few tracks introduce some new themes and develop on the ideas already explored to create familiar territory with an altered sense of feeling. The movements in ‘Dies Irae’ are largely diatonic creating a sense of stability and safety. Although, still embedded in minor and melodrama, the harmony gives a sense of aftermath and recovery from tragedy. Before long, the short-lived peace is turned on its head, moving into non-diatonic territory again using a similar progression heard in the first track but instead of falling a tritone, it makes the newly reached F#m its new key centre and carries on peacefully.
‘Until Death’ sports a jarring motif on the piano and pizzicato triplets from the string section, ominous choir harmonies, and a lot of tension in the space between notes. Harmony comes in with a Phrygian-like modality complete with beautiful chordal vamps of minor and suspended flavours. ‘Kyrie Eleison’ takes a mostly minimalist approach with very sparse instrumentation and a rather suspenseful single note melody on the piano, and both male and female vocals take centre stage, often harmonising in fourths where they fit. ‘Libera Eis Domine’ offers a calm before the storm with a stronger focus on major within the melancholic chord vamp, resolving to a major 9 and launching into chaos. ‘Pie Jesu’ often features reverb lathered vocals sung in fourths intervals—a clear characteristic of Gregorian chanting (also revisiting the walking theme in the opening track).
‘Rememberance’ uses a natural minor phrase over the 6, 4 and 5 chords of Ab major, before resolving to the tonic in what might appear to be the happiest moment on the album. With yet another reference to the walking theme, the harmony now starts on the Ab major and vamps with the G minor. Greater emphasis is placed on the more uplifting elements here while retaining its shadow and gloom.
‘Lacrimosa’ is the apex of the album at almost 11 minutes in length, and boasts much harmonic tension in the beginning with held minor second intervals and chromatically descending devices. When settled, the structure follows a clear dynamic pattern of highs and lows with simple vamps in verses and bursting climaxes to follow, along with pizzicato string rhythms and a 7/4 theme that moves swiftly by and develops further in the piece.
A truly wholehearted and successful effort to compose, express and capture such impassioned emotions in music. There is an obvious shift away from the more contemporary elements that would normally appear in Virgin Black’s sound, however, this release offers a perspective on the music that might not have been realised any other way. I suspect long awaiting fans of Virgin Black are going to thoroughly enjoy what this album brings. Startling tension, boundless waves of dark and obscure harmony and an emotional rollercoaster of a listening journey. Incredible work from all involved.
Requiem – Pianissimo is due for release Friday, 30th November 2018.
Requiem – Pianissimo is available for purchase here.
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