Mandala of Fear by HuntsmenRelease date: March 13, 2020
Label: Prosthetic Records
Huntsmen are a newly expanded five-piece from Chicago whose 2017 debut American Scrap had them labelled as ‘Americana metal’. One reason for that is the band’s interest in the traditions of story-telling, so important to the country and folk idioms and which the band have given their own spin on the tale told at length on their sci-fi epic across a double album, Mandala of Fear.
I had to look up what a mandala was, it’s a Sanskrit word for a circle, and rather than summarise I’m brazenly going to quote Wikipedia wholesale – “In New Age, the mandala is a diagram, chart or geometric pattern that represents the cosmos metaphysically or symbolically; a time-microcosm of the universe, but it originally meant to represent wholeness and a model for the organizational structure of life itself, a cosmic diagram that shows the relation to the infinite and the world that extends beyond and within minds and bodies.”
So, what’s a Mandala of Fear? I’ll leave you to puzzle over that whilst you listen to the album. Yes, this is one of those records that may ask you to do a little homework, and not just to ponder the meaning of life whilst the guitars crash and soar. This is the first time I have been given a document with an album release which gives the full story concept, plus a breakdown of what is happening in the narrative during each song. There is also an accompanying comic book, which I haven’t seen, but which I’m sure would really help bring these songs to life.
If that all sounds somewhat daunting, well then, yes, it is a little. But I bet you’re curious too! With a running time of 79 minutes, listening to Mandala of Fear can need a real investment to get the full experience and in truth I tend to listen to the album in two halves, as I rarely have the total time required to just commit fully to it.
So, what does it sound like? And what’s that Americana metal tag all about? Sonically, it’s a bit of a red herring, apart from opener ‘Ride Out’ and the instrumental ‘Loss’ there’s not much to anchor it to classic American roots music. ‘Ride Out’ is where new full time member, vocalist Aimee Bueno gets to shine, adding her voice to the massed vocals of the band, and swapping clean, melodious lines with Chris Kang as a tangle of guitars hit power chords and riff heroically. This track alone really recalls Heron Oblivion, Ethan Miller’s baroque folk rock ensemble – that is until half way through when the death metal vocals and pulverising drums lead you into the clean acoustic bridge and soaring third act of the song. There’s still time for it to end with screaming vocals and huge post-metal dissonance. You begin to expect the unexpected.
There are several other occasions where the bands largely, doomy, post-metal songscapes are shattered by abrasive passages of black metal tremolo picking, such as on the vicious ‘A Nameless Dread’ or cookie monster death metal beat downs. Virtually every song has several stylistic movements, but it all serves the song and none of it ever sounds out of place or forced.
There isn’t a bad song on the album, but I would say that a couple of the instrumental numbers, whilst full of Pelican-esque sweep and dramatics, feel a little similar and if you were looking to distill the album down to a single disc then it’s there that you would start your edit. During early listens I would have said that like a lot of concept albums, it runs out of steam towards the end, but after further listens it’s clear that closing numbers ‘The Swallow’, like a darker All Them Witches and ‘Clearing The Sand’ a monumental, wonderous, psych-doom trip, keep the quality up right until the end.
It occurs to me that I haven’t explained what this concept album is about, but you know what, you can buy this album (and maybe the comic) and begin to find that out for yourself. All I will say is that Mandala of Fear is obviously a labour of love from a group of very talented, ambitious and creative musicians. Double concept albums can often be seen as acts of hubris by bands desperate to prove how clever they are, but you get the sense from Huntsmen that this music, noisy and threatening as it is, comes from the heart and soul.