REVIEW: HARAKIRI FOR THE SKY – “Maere”
What I will not do to start this review is to try to pin down a single genre Vienna’s Harakiri For The Sky. Some may call it post-black metal, others will instantaneously balk at the instant affixation of the “post” to anything that deviates from a stereotypical genre mold. Another group of pedants will be looser in its determination and call HFTS melodic black metal, or even melodic death metal. They are also as correct as anyone else. Folk black metal? Sure! Blackgaze? Absolutely! Simply put, we can have an entire conversation hinged on putting Harakiri in a box, and though it would be a fruitful academic and artsy discussion, it will ultimately be an exercise in exciting frustration. What I will do to start this review, is that 2021’s Maere is Harakiri For The Sky’s strongest and most diverse effort yet.
Admittedly, I had only a fleeting association with HFTS’s back catalog, casually flirting with 2018’s “Arson” and skimming through “III: Trauma”, while nearly ignoring any of the preceding records. “Maere” is the record to show new listeners of the artist, and even the genre, as there is something for everyone. It is as demonstrative as it is evocative, music that tells you what to feel while also allowing the listener to fill in the spaces created with their own flavor of thought. The fact that Harakiri is a two-man band (with a superlative sessions drummer) is a testament to the creativity of the musicians, as they can paint diverse, intricate, and concentrated pictures with fewer minds working on the process.
Maere kicks off with “I, Pallbearer” kicks off with a pensive slow burn, lumbering as it picks up pace, setting the bleak stage before kicking in at full throttle with huge chords, tremolo-picked melodies, and explosive black metal drums to envelop the listener in Harakiri’s signature sense of angered despair. The next single “Sing For The Damage We’ve Done” is among the highlights of Maere, as it is a perfect example of what the record has to offer; it weaves effortlessly across several emotions with its soaring guitar passages, melodic overdubs, and subtle string work, bolstered with the bombastic drums and barked vocals. This track is a particular favorite for this reviewer as it is one of the few on this record that plays with tempo, layer density, chordal mode changes, and space. It is not afraid to strip back layers to give the listener a breath of air before plunging them back into the depths, piling on layer upon layer of heavy sound, almost to a claustrophobic intensity, before easing back up. In the second half of “Sing For the Damage…” there is a bouncy melody that is upbeat in its phrasing and contrasts the agony in the background, instantly causing a head-bob and a smile, in an otherwise grim genre. Adding to this sense of contrasting moods, this melody drops off into a stripped ambient and folky choral vocal passage heavy with acoustic guitars and reverb. Perhaps an intentional or subtle nod to Neige (from Alcest). It is these injections that make this track, this record, and this band so superlative.
A paragraph extolling the grandiosity and nuances of every track can be written for any of the tracks, but that would rob the listener of the pleasures of the ebbs and flows that Maere has to offer. Whether it is the laborious sorrow of “Us Against December Skies”, the fast-paced “Three Empty Words” (maybe alluding to “I Love You”?). “Once Upon a Winter”, another personal favorite, owing to yet another upbeat contrasted melody-turned earworm. Harakiri’s insistence on circling back to a central melody is highlighted in this track. Even though the guitar passages progress, the intro melody sneaks in and out, anchoring the listener to something familiar. “Once Upon a Winter” is also a winner since it champions the idea of building tension to a point of breaking, and crushingly resolves in a supremely satisfying way. In this regard, the predictability of the rise and fall, the tension and release, works to our advantage. To explore yet another facet, “Silver Needle – Golden Dawn” begins with another Alcest-esque keyboard/guitar duet before descending into what is possibly the heaviest passages in the record, without compromising the moody, and a purposeful lowering of pitch reinforces that sense of frustrating sadness, of screaming through clenched teeth. Yet again, a major scale melody gives the listener a sense of hope, further strengthening the underlying darkness brought forth by the vocals and harmonies. Harakiri leans into the sonic idea that “true despair cannot exist without a small measure of hope”. Album closer “Song to Say Goodbye” leads with a powerful keyboard melody that is as simple as it is profound, and serves as a perfect end page to a comprehensive saga. Maere is as grandiose in its scale as it is personal in its emotional heft.
Several paragraphs in, it is evident that Maere is a special record and should be given a spin by old fans and new listeners alike. That said, there are minor gripes keeping it from utter perfection. To begin with, Maere is a LONG record, clocking in at over a hundred minutes covering ten tracks, it is a daunting task to listen to this record end-to-end. This isn’t a Doom metal record, where we are accustomed to long track and record lengths since that genre relies on space, but Harakiri leans heavily into its dense songwriting style, which can be fatiguing to even the most ardent of listeners. Album closer “Song to Say Goodbye” is the shortest track, yet it clocks in over five minutes which is on the higher side of average metal tracks. “I’m All About The Dusk” is the longest clocking at eleven minutes, of layers upon layers of jam-packed instrumentation and vocals. As much as this reviewer is loathed to say, but Maere could have been served better with brief respites with interludes. Many of the tracks open with slower passages, but these get formulaic quickly and aren’t creating enough breathing room for listeners to reset their attention.
Further pressing on this, JJ’s vocals are powerful, they are the perfect representation of violent sadness, yet lack modality and flexibility in its range. Obviously a stylistic choice, but one that can get tired quickly, especially when coupled with the epic length of the record. More clean vocal passages, as ones heard on “Sing For The Damage We’ve Done” would have helped balance out the monotony, perhaps even going up or down in vocal ranges. Although, JJ has a unique skill of being just intelligible enough to catch loose words and phrases without having the listener zone out and consider the vocals more percussive, as is wont in many extreme metal records.
The musicianship of multi-instrumentalist M.S. speaks for itself and in this gushing review. The production is top-notch equally doling out density and clarity as needed. Special mention of sessions-drummer Kerim “Krimh” Letchner (of Decapitated and other fame) must be made, his creative flair and diverse drum arrangements add to the creative process and I hope he continues to be a part of HFTS for future records.
Maere is Harakiri For The Sky’s strongest effort. This record is the sonic equivalent of what goes through our minds as we thrash and run against the walls of our own melancholy. They have harnessed, perfected, and weaponized the idea of violent despair with their dense and nuanced sound. A great introduction to the band and the genre, and a progression for existing fans.