One can trace a clear line of progression on Alunah‘s albums, across 2010’s Call of Avernus (review here), 2012’s White Hoarhound (review here) and 2014’s Awakening the Forest (review here), but the eight tracks/43 minutes of Solennial celebrate a particular moment of arrival for them. Working alongside much-lauded producer and Conan bassist/vocalist Chris Fielding at Skyhammer Studio, Alunah — guitarist/vocalist Sophie Day, guitarist Dave Day, bassist Daniel Burchmore and drummer Jake Mason — bring more of an ambient sensibility to their output than ever before, and while Fielding is known for his own crushing tones and those he’s able to bring out of others in the studio, and Solennial is plenty heavy in its raw sound, it’s the spaces that Alunah create and fill that allow these songs to come to life in the vivid, colorful way they do.
To wit, the layers of guitar in subdued intro “The Dying Soil” arrive both far forward and far back, and the room between them comes populated by foreboding string sounds. It’s more than a minute before Mason‘s drums enter with thudding toms behind Sophie‘s vocals, calm and descriptive, and the tension the band creates in that moment isn’t unlike what SubRosa brought to “Despair is a Siren” last year, but as “The Dying Soil” ends with a single snare hit snapping the listener to attention, they of course take their own path into the woods. Those curious, as I was, to hear what kinds of tones Alunah would get out of recording at Skyhammer receive an answer in about the first six seconds of “Light of Winter,” which begins with guitar alone proffering a rich, full and churning fuzz, warm and engrossing. It becomes a defining element of Solennial and lends the band a foundation from which to wonder as they will and do.
“Light of Winter” itself is more straightforward in its rolling groove, though Burchmore adds intriguing fills on bass as he’ll do even more righteously in the subsequent “Feast of Torches,” and as songwriting has always been a strength for Alunah, it’s little surprise that “Light of Winter” begins a succession of memorable cuts running through the rest of side A and beyond. And to Solennial‘s credit, it stays informed by the quiet beginning it goes on from “The Dying Soil,” which seems to find an echo at the start of “Feast of Torches.” Though the latter moves into its nod patiently, that only seems to make it more comfortable once it gets there, and the hook is marked out by the addition of male backing vocals behind Sophie, which will come even more to prominence later on the penultimate “Lugh’s Assembly” and bring a gothic flair to the catchiness in the meantime. “Feast of Torches” explores heavy-psych lead work briefly but ends on its chorus and gives way to the ultra-heavy thud and rumble of “The Reckoning of Time,” which clears to let the first verse take hold over guitar and empty space, gradually brought to a movement of airy tones, layered voice and mid-paced toms that kicks into later-Iommi-style riffing.
It’s ultimately with “Feast of Torches” and “The Reckoning of Time” that the narrative of Solennial seems to really let itself be felt. As Alunah shift into “Fire of Thornborough Henge,” “Petrichor,” “Lugh’s Assembly” and the closing The Cure cover, “A Forest,” the lyrics seem to tie together ideas across tracks, and indeed across albums, as Awakening the Forest is alluded to several times, first in “Fire of Thornborough Henge” and then again in “Petrichor” directly. The final two cuts mention forests as well — you might say it’s the title of the last song, which is the first recorded cover Alunah have done — in a more general way, seemingly as a metaphor for confusion, grief, and the seeking of resolution. This would also tie Solennial to its predecessor, but if Alunah needed to distinguish their fourth outing from their third, they do so both in the execution of this conceptual focus and in the performances within the tracks themselves, whether it’s Burchmore‘s bass, which continues to shine, or Sophie‘s vocals, which show greater range throughout but make a particular highlight of “Fire of Thornborough Henge” and carry “Petrichor” through the bulk of its brooding run — string sounds returning deep in the mix along with plotted lead lines of weeping guitar — until the build playing out subtly behind her reaches its apex in greater force of guitar, bass and drums.
Further, Alunah grow more brazen in toying with structure on “Lugh’s Assembly,” the longest inclusion at 7:52. It essentially breaks in half just about four minutes in, departing its initial verse and chorus in favor of a quieter, progressive flow. The drift is held together first by Sophie‘s vocals and then by a fuzzy guitar solo, and “Lugh’s Assembly” rounds out with the reintroduction of those backing vocals for a few lines, again, goth in their impression. They’re quickly arrived and gone — it really is just a few lines — but a new dynamic for Alunah and a point of potential future growth. As Mason‘s drums pick up to start “A Forest,” joined soon by guitar and bass, the atmosphere remains affected by the track prior, though the intro has little in the end to do with the plodding that emerges in the finale at about a minute into the total six-plus.
One can strain to hear some Electric Wizard brought to the closer at points, but again, this is folded into Alunah‘s overarching intent, which has become all the more individual over time and reaches new heights in that regard on Solennial as well. Ending with a momentary push-into-slowdown that brings the strings back up to close along with the last crashes, “A Forest” even as an adopted song underscores the boldness of the four-piece’s forward movement here, instrumentally, vocally, in arrangement, craft and production. Now past their first 10 years, Alunah have yet to conjure an offering that did not build off what they’ve done in the past while introducing new aspects to their sound, and though they’ve never been prone to drastic shifts — that is, one can feel reasonably certain in putting on “The Reckoning of Time” that they’re not about to start playing grindcore for no reason in the middle of it — they’ve only become steadier in their approach. Solennial basks in a solar ritualizing true to its etymology, but moreover, it carries a feeling of mastery behind its creation that stands in henge-like testament to Alunah‘s hard-won maturity as a band. By no means to they seem like they are finished growing, but then, a forest never is.