A Romance with Violence by WayfarerRelease date: October 16, 2020
Label: Profound Lore Records
It’s a singular unique type of experience when, as a listener, you suddenly have an ‘a-ha’ moment with a release, or, more importantly, a band overall. Denver, Colorado’s Wayfarer have been an entity I have long been aware that I should regard highly, but with whom I have never ‘clicked’. Their mix of surging, expansive, caustic black metal with dark Americana was something that immediately appealed, but previous albums left me cold, rather than warmed through with the dusty ennui of American country, folk and bluegrass.
Wayfarer’s discography will most certainly be revisited with fervour by myself now, but prior to the past few weeks I found the sounds they were attempting to combine weren’t meshing in the way that other reviewers and the black metal community could hear and were exalting them for. All of this has changed with the release of their new record, A Romance with Violence.
Wayfarer’s fourth LP opens with the short intro track ‘The Curtain Pulls Back’ which immediately sets the scene. Opening with little over a minute of music that could easily be from a Spaghetti Western, A Romance with Violence feels like it begins in a corner of a dusty down and out saloon, with a tireless trio of musicians trying to keep some semblance of positivity going in a dying mining town. A wincing piano (or perhaps harpsicord) plays a little ditty, playful yet increasingly pensive, as stringed instruments (a fiddle and maybe a more traditional violin, too) come in to provide the counterpoint. This stutters away, unveiling the efficacy of modern production, before ‘The Crimson Rider (Gallows Frontier, Act I)’ slams into the fray – the audio equivalent of the saloon’s swinging double doors splintering from their hinges as a new figure announces their arrival in town by kicking the sleepy bar awake.
The first track proper of the album is instantly enjoyable with sledgehammer brutality undercut with a delightful little riff underneath that owes more to quality metalcore than to black metal. From the first moments the vocals usher forth it’s immediately apparent that the band have perfected this side of their presentation. The recording is immediately more sympathetic and the delivery more assured. Rather than being a question mark, like on previous recordings (still not re-reviewed, mind…), the heavy vocals on A Romance with Violence are consistently one of the highlights of the record.
‘The Crimson Rider (Gallows Frontier, Act I)’ shifts through many different sections, each as impressive as the last. We traverse the plains – from the bitter cold, thunder and lightning storm of Wayfarer at their most incandescent and bombastic, with the head-banging heaviness of the track’s midpoint black metal fury, to the gorgeous electro-acoustic folk directly after, to the bridge that blurs bluegrass inflected guitars with a rhythm section crescendoing in a style reminiscent of the most epic post-rock, before the track blooms into heaviness again before receding away to the sounds of drumming that put me in mind of one or two travellers entertaining themselves around a lone fire.
The surprise on the next track – ‘The Iron Horse (Gallows Frontier, Act II)’ – is that the two don’t segue together as one might expect given the brackets parts one and two. However, the tonality and timbre of the song is very much in the same vein, with one riff from the previous track going through a metamorphoses, but still the eerie double negative nature of it hangs in the air, gloomily linking the two. A more concise track than its forebear, Wayfarer may not get as heavy as before, but it somehow feels far darker, mournful. It features some sublime guitar work, with a solo in particular proving dizzying in its acrobatics, all the while the punishing drumming urging the rest of the band ever forward – a member of the posse urging forward their hungry, dehydrated compatriots, perhaps. The entire album is cinematic in scale and one can’t help but have scenes conjured when listening to this new Wayfarer LP.
We do then segue into ‘Fire & Gold’, the shortest ‘true’ track on the album. It’s a strange one. In their ambition to paint another evocative scene, the quartet absolutely nail it. Its sonic construct is perhaps the hardest to explain, as it’s unmistakably dark Americana, but it’s very much Wayfarer’s unique take on it, and so despite sounding exactly as you imagine it also put me in mind of Wovenhand and My Dying Bride performing at some odd open stage festival in the middle of nowhere, population: festival goers.
It’s a fitting track to finish what I imagine is Side A of a piece of vinyl, completing a story told by the two previous tracks and the album’s intro. However, unlike the intro which feels like a necessary prelude to ‘The Crimson Rider (Gallow’s Frontier, Act I)’, ‘Fire & Gold’ doesn’t stand on its own two feet when taken away from the rest of the album. And that’s fine, because the type of music Wayfarer makes – and indeed much of the music I would say is reviewed in the pages of Echoes and Dust – is still in the thrall and finds love in creating albums. Objectively, some of the clean vocals featured on these four minutes needed another take or two in the studio. There’s a fine balance between style and ability, and I think Wayfarer slightly get away with the style they are going for not necessarily demanding stronger clean vocal chops here. The haunting, deeper vocals are accomplished, but some of the rest of the sung elements can feel strained. Happily, as previously noted, that sense of hardship and strain adds to mise-en-scène and as the track slowly fades away, as the fire dies, our riders are enveloped in perfect pitch black.
‘Masquerade of the Gunlingers’ is, a) an awesome track title and, b) exactly what it sounds like it will sound like. What also feels very different on A Romance with Violence as opposed to previous records, is that Wayfarer bring in a lot more extreme metal influences. Rather than melding black metal with their American folk inspirations, the four-piece seem to have opened up their rulebook. I’ve already alluded to it with some prior comparisons, but in ‘Masquerade of the Gunslingers’ one can hear nods to post-metal, sludge, as well as the more epic outer-reaches of hardcore. It’s always underpinned with their supreme ability to master their favoured ingredients, but there seems to be so much more layered within this track and the entire record this time around. The song also features some excellent clean singing – that lower tone working its magic, evoking the solitude of the trail – and the track drifts along with a gorgeous passage of rumbling bass and cyclical guitar work and precious, light drumming.
Similarly, to ‘The Curtain Pulls Back’, ‘Intermission’ is a two minute, beautiful piece of music, reaffirming that love of American folk, that lays the groundwork for closing song ‘Vaudeville’. What an opening riff this thing has! Fast-paced yet hypnotic, it immediately gets the blood pumping while transfixing the listener. It gives way to claps and percussion and a real folk riff bordering on country – y’know, it has that twang, that’s so unmistakably American. We’re at base camp, staring at awe at the sheer might of the Rocky Mountains, trying to fashion some kind of sustainable life. God damn this town…
‘Vaudeville’ has a large majority of clean vocals, but like ‘Masquerade of the Gunslingers’ they are (by and large) accomplished, adding to the continuous scene-setting, but it does raise a slight frustration in how ‘Fire & Gold’ dips in quality just that little bit. ‘Vaudeville’ is the track on the record with the greatest contrasts running through it, and also the most unapologetically epic. Rather than on previous tracks this is largely attained via different means than furious tremolo picked black metal waves, or even the aforementioned predilection for post-rocks swell of sound. Rather we get long drawn out notes that build in volume and wailing guitars making plaintive calls into the great vastness of nature, as some gorgeous synth work gets layered within, bolstering the overall sonic tapestry with greater flavour and depth. The synth is the only thing left by the end, slowly repeating and then fading out, as this huge painting of an alternative black metal American frontier is quietly consumed by history and time itself.
Wayfarer have constructed a cinematic record in A Romance with Violence, and it is undoubtedly their strongest LP to date. It is a gift of an album in 2020, transporting the listener away from the modern day and into a strange alternative Western sound-tracked by black metal, rather than Ennio Morricone or Sergio Leone. Immerse yourself.