Three years after their debut album Narwhal, Undersmile return with Anhedonia an album that sees them maturing considerably. When the band first slowly crawled onto the scene, their drawn out songs packed a considerable, if slow-motion, punch but perhaps lacked something in the way of subtlety, which for a doom band is admittedly not always a pressing concern. Since Narwhal, Undersmile has sprouted an offshoot Americana/folk band under the moniker of Coma Wall which allows the quartet of Taz and Olly Corona-Brown, Hel Sterne and Tom McKibbin a more pastoral release valve.
Whilst Anhedonia doesn’t come across as a fusion of the two projects in terms of style, it is evident that the band’s songwriting has developed considerably, moving them away from being a simple, straight up doom band and into a new territory that they alone inhabit. Opening track Labyrinths showcases just how far the band has come. A slow, undistorted guitar line underpins the Hel and Taz’s languid croon. The interplay between the pair is now honed to perfection, as they play off of each other perfectly. Their tones intertwine gloriously, and as the first colossal wave of distorted guitars hit, there’s something almost celestial about the way they shift their tones from the mire to the heavens. As the song develops, changing course and mood constantly over its 10 minute duration, just as a labyrinth should, their vocals develop more grit and growl, until the song finally unfurls in a wave of crashing guitar chords and howled refrains about abandonment and shiny white bone.
Song Of Stones sees the band firmly in control of their dynamics. The understated introduction and funereal pace reflect the subject matter, which is part eulogy and part rumination on life and death. The addition of strings adds depth and a whole new layer to the band’s sonic palette. Whilst there’s undoubted power to the screamed vocals and raw guitar sections, it is the emotional resonance found in the combinations of vocals and strings during the moments of quiet contemplation that prove most affecting. The influence of the slowcore pioneers Codeine hangs heavy over the song (and to some degree, the album) like a wonderful opiate fog, which is no bad thing at all.
The band’s masterpiece however is Aeris, a song that encapsulates the band’s ability to not only fully utilise the loud-quiet-loud template, but to add layers of nuance and beauty to it too. It’s here that they stretch beyond the boundaries of doom and drone entirely, as they take in elements of blues, hymns, and post-rock narrative and bend them to their own whims. The result is tumultuous and elegant, full of sorrow and joy. It’s an utterly spellbinding and magical piece of songwriting.
Of course the band hasn’t eschewed their doom/drone roots, and there’s plenty of unfettered anger, thunderous waves of guitar and fuzzed up bass here too. Sky Burial might start off in understated and restrained fashion, but soon develops into a desperate and emotional rollercoaster. The guitars ramp up the noise behind a hollered vocal refrain of “there’s no one else, I’m the only one”, a line that’s delivered in such a fashion that it implies desperate isolation, or an unhealthy relationship. Atacama Sunburn launches straight in with the piles of distortion too. It’s still meticulously structured, but is perhaps the song that adheres most closely to the doom archetype. Closing the album is Knucklesucker a song that slow builds towards a speedy, pumped up climax that describes the condition of Anhedonia in the lines “I don’t feel hollow, I don’t’ feel sorrow, I don’t feel anything, really”.
Whilst the album is titled after a condition where it is not possible to feel pleasure in normally pleasurable activity, is in fact awash with emotion. Whilst many might find the general tone to be gloomy, there is pleasure to be found in these darkened corners. All it takes is time.