I’ve formed something of an instant empathic bond with this album, the first full-length release from French symphonic black metallers Darkenhöld. As a teenager I loved the strand of escapist black metal that specialised in building its own little pocket-dimension universes; briefly everywhere in the nineties, it seems to have rather fallen away from popularity since, possibly because imaginatively-impoverished critics tend to meet it with resounding derision. It takes a brave man these days to stand up with a black cloak on and declare yourself Lord So-and-So of the Outer Darkness, which is probably why a lot of bands stopped attempting it.


So, all my respect to Darkenhöld, who have dug up that black cloak from the back of the scene prop box and put it on with pride. A Passage to the Towers sounds like it took its main cue from Dimmu Borgir’s legendary Stormblåst, with the same penchant for resonant orchestration, smoothly sweeping riffs, and vocals that are melded into the mix like an additional part of the instrumentation, but it also spreads its inspirational net to draw in everything from Bathoryesque choral backing vocals to some keyboard breaks that pay conspicuous homage to Era One Mortiis. This is a band who know their musical history very, very well.


And not only are they stealing from the best, they’ve managed to recombine all the elements of their choosing so fluently that the result sounds more archetypal than derivative. There’s an almost relaxed richness to the songwriting, a sense that the band are taking their personal quest at exactly the pace they choose – and since they’re trying to impress nobody but themselves, the results are all the more persuasive. From the gorgeous guitars that close out “Citadel of Obsidian Slumber” to the delicate melodies of “Cleaving the Ethereal Waves” or the almost Emperor-esque sweeping charge of “Crimson Legions”, there’s a deep beauty in this album, and a passionate refusal to compromise with the mundane. Everything contributes to the atmosphere, and nothing is allowed to detract. The lyrics – in English – are less than grammatical, but the broken syntax somehow works, making them less of a coherent narrative and more a verbal shadowplay of concepts and imagery. Even the liner notes fit the theme, printed in the style of a medieval illuminated manuscript on pages with fake fire damage around the edges.


The result is an exquisite blend of darkness and delicacy that’s perfect for listening to alone by candlelight, a flickering jewel of an album whose beauty is only enhanced by its refusal to acknowledge time, trend or popular opinion. Darkenhöld are, in every possible sense, in a world of their own, and it’s entirely up to you whether you want to join them. Personally, I’ll be there. [9/10 – KIT RATHENAR]