For all the strings on Mat McNerney’s bow, the overriding constant is darkness. That’s a given when it comes to his involvement in the black metal bands Dødheimsgard and Code, but as a frontman of Grave Pleasures, a band with a much clearer focus on pop-leaning melody, the gothic streak is certainly prominent and has become one of their defining features. There’s definitely room for manoeuverability within his musical canon, even within the vast sonic disparity, and Hexvessel only seems to be ripping the range open once again to widen it by an even greater degree. Of course, this isn’t new for McNerney – the band released their debut in 2011 – but given his profile now that’s arguably at its highest, his forays into sylvan, mystical folk have taken on new life with a wider potential audience than ever before.
That’s no guarantee that it’ll connect though, and while that can be said for pretty much any of the material from an artist as versatile as McNerney is, All Tree slots into a particularly narrow niche that can be rather difficult to get onboard with. Sure, the almost medieval atmosphere and thematic focus on heady spirituality doesn’t deviate too much from the regular territory of folk-metal, but there’s at least a core of greater strength or sinister intent there, no matter how marginal; with Hexvessel, the whole thing comes across as a personal creative vehicle for McNerney and no one else, embracing sounds that he finds appreciation in even if no one else will. And that’s definitely admirable, especially in a creative endeavour as wide-reaching and populist-by-design as music can be, but it’s difficult to see how or where All Tree connects in its meandering, hazy soundscapes, and that’s disappointing.
It’s not as if there’s nothing here though, with McNerney having the richness and personality in his vocals to weave these sorts of deliberately esoteric and mystical tales, and on their own, there’s the sort of strident, timeless imagery in a track like Changeling that feels derivative on an old fable or traditional ballad in a really strong way. If this album has anything going for it, it’s well-written enough produce some powerful moments in isolation, even if Hexvessel can struggle to build on them or really do anything useful with them beyond leaving them to linger. And that’s definitely a problem, especially when All Tree never really varies in pace or approach, and the greatest hope it has Of creating a lasting impact is layering and production that exemplifies the image of foggy, mysterious forests that’s clearly the main aim. That’s never really all that compelling though, and by the time a decent chunk of the songs on here proceed to pair traditional folk acoustics with the psychedelic cushions of weeping strings, touches of flute and floating backing vocals, it runs its course without much trouble. At least the slide guitar on Birthmark seems to develop some character of its own, but in truth, so much of it completely bleeds into itself that it’s difficult to recall much of anything. It’s ultimately well-made for what it is, but what it is also doesn’t produce much of reason to go deeper or take more of a cursory listen at most.
It leaves All Tree as an album that’s sufficient at creating the air and atmosphere that McNerney is clearly fixated on for it, but beyond that, it can feel rather hollow with few substantial attempts made to do much with it that’ll last. And perhaps that can be something of a given – on concept alone, it lives and dies on some very cut-and-dry notions of what it wants to be – but even interesting writing and a decent sonic pallet can’t immediately synthesise something good. There needs to be something deeper to have that lasting effect, and this time around at least, Hexvessel seem to be missing that.
For fans of: Ulver, Sólstafir, A Forest Of Stars
Words by Luke Nuttall
‘All Tree’ by Hexvessel is released on 15th February on Secret Trees.