Luminous Vault is a two-piece black metal band from New York City that mixes electronic drums, synthesizers with distorted guitars, and metal basslines in a unique fusion of metal and EDM. On their debut full-length, Animate the Emptiness, the electronic sounds range from 80’s synthwave styles to parts that sound like intelligent dance music (IDM), with a sprinkle of techno mixed in. The qualities vary from psychedelic and ambient to punchy and groovy.
Up until just recently, I hadn’t realised Luminous Vault was comprised of an all-star cast, namely Mario Diaz from Oneirogen and Bloodmist on guitars and vocals, and Samuel Smith from Artificial Brain and Aeviterne on bass, vocals, and presumably the electronic drum composition. Even after some searching, I have struggled to find which member composes the synths and other electronic elements. On their Bandcamp page it mentions that Smith does the “distorted basslines and synthetic hi-hat patterns”, but there is no specific mention of who created the kick and snare patterns. I’m assuming it’s either Smith or both members contributing to the electronic elements of the music. Another interesting aspect of their music is the use of guitar feedback and delays to create almost seemingly synthesized type sounds.
Although electronic music and black metal are by no means an original mix, what Luminous Vault does with this combo is modern and fresh. They quote Godflesh and Blut Aus Nord as bands that pioneered the genre, which gives you a good idea of their influences. In a surprising and positive twist, the band sounds nothing like either of its listed influences, though from time to time you can hear the writing pay homage to both giants of the genre.
The music has an ethereal quality to it. Synths tend to be aggressive and dreamy simultaneously, leaving you with conflicting emotions. The black metal parts are heavy but all the more so, groovy. There are fewer blasts and double-kick patterns in the album and more groovy rock-style backbeats, as well as EDM-style drum grooves. The drums always sound synthetic; the snare reminds me of a drum and bass snare, or even a heavily compressed 80’s Roland drum machine sound. The kick sound is round and warm, suited to both metal and EDM, and the hats are crisp but not too sibilant. As a whole, the album’s production is fantastic, with all of the instrumental tones perfectly mixed. Overall, the album is warm with a big bottom end but still manages to feel aggressive and bright when needed.
The album opens with an oscillating synth slowly shifting through tones as additional rhythmic layers get added. As we hit the 30-second mark the black metal begins. The tone is filtered and soft, giving the part that follows an even grander entry as full-volume guitars, bass, and drums kick in. Immediately you will understand what I mean when I say the drums are groovier. There is a lot of space in the drum patterns. The drums follow the rhythmic patterns of the riffs rather than creating a wall of sound in the background, as the usual blast-style drums tend to do. I love the sound of the vocals on this record. They are more barked than some black metal vocals; a bit like Celtic Frost, just more unhinged. In the middle of the song, the texture thins out leaving wispy tremolo guitar and a drum groove that has an uneven number of beats. This is where I draw my IDM comparison as the off-kilter drums and strange guitar parts do not fit any other style of electronic music I can think of. Towards the end of the track, the drums add some double-kick spice but still remain sparse and groovy for the most part. From 4:15 the musical quality changes and the guitars become more wistful and emotive. The music takes on a post-rock quality; sad yet dreamy. The guitars soar above the accented drums creating beautiful swells before the song ends abruptly.
“Incarnate Flame Arise” is next and I love how the open guitar hits blend with the driving drums and reversed swells. We kick into some gnarly low-end riffs layered with erratic hi-hat patterns. The following drums wouldn’t be out of place on a hip-hop album, so we have another genre to add to the list. The riffs, although grim, are also oddly suspended and uplifting; the texture is a juxtaposition between joy and sorrow. The mood then becomes overwhelmingly dark, emulating the feeling of fighting back true terror. The tone lifts slightly as some guitar harmonies are added but the track ends on a decidedly morbid tone. If it wasn’t clear from the start, descriptions of the music as true terror and morbid are compliments. I love it.
One of the best tracks on the album might be “Regeneration”, track four. It begins with an industrial quality that is quickly brought to life with sonorous guitar chords that, even with distortion, sound pleasant. The guitar continues to play a tasteful melodic solo with incredible use of harmonics. The melodies sing from the guitar like a swan song; a dirge to the futility of life. At two minutes the song breaks into a triumphant snare roll, layered with melodies that I liken to falling rain. One of the few blasted parts of the album comes at the climax of this beautiful section, shifting the tone from positive to confusing. This only lasts seconds and the previous water-based comparison continues as the rest of the instruments wash away leaving a cascade of picked guitar notes; suspended, drifting among the endless cosmos. The song begins to pulse with intensity and becomes denser and denser, the triumphant quality building to a peak. At this peak, monstrous growls echo across the galaxy of sound, as if a voice raging against the universe, casting shadows across the vastness of space.
“Earth Demon”, the following track, is one of the darkest on the album and one of the most “black metal” sounding of the lot. Not a bad track at all, but perhaps my least favourite from the album for reasons I cannot explain. You will just have to live with that.
The track that actually put me onto this album in the first place is the one that is most unlike the rest of the album. “Embryonic”, track six, came up on a playlist as I was browsing for new albums. I did not expect nor anticipate what I ended up finding but was all the happier for it. This track is what you might call filler, as it barely broaches eighty seconds in length and consists of only repetitive synths, but it’s such a moving composition that I loathe using the filler descriptor. This track reminds me of artists such as Brian Eno and Phillip Glass. It has such a warm and enveloping sound I can just listen to it over and over again; in fact, I kind of wish it was longer with more parts.
The closer “Ancient North” is another fantastic track, as every track on the album is, but it does stick to similar pathways as previous tracks. So, I will forgo an in-depth analysis and finish off with some overall thoughts on the album.
I do want to talk briefly about the harmony the band uses which I feel contributes to much of the unique emotive quality the music expresses. The chords, although at times minor, often feel suspended (this involves swapping out either the 3rd or 5th from a triad/chord and including a 2nd, 4th, or even 6th). They also sometimes feel chromatic, diminished, or even follow whole-tone patterns. There are also occasional 7th chords thrown into the mix. All of this leads to an album that is bursting with harmonic complexity, which is unusual for many metal acts.
Another element of this album that I enjoy is the careful and considered use of virtuosity and technicality. I have already mentioned this in the drum writing but is also well on display in the guitar and bass writing. The playing shows chops but is well-considered to maintain the dreamy mood of the record.
This album is an absolute banger and a must-listen for anyone vaguely into this style of music. It is familiar yet fresh with great production and songwriting. What more can you ask for?
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You can grab a digital copy of Animate The Emptiness over on Bandcamp, as well as copies of the album on CD. Vinyl is available over on the Profound Lore Records Store. You can also listen to the album over on Spotify.