Handful of Stars

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If ever a band was in danger of overstaying its welcome, that band was the Ukraine's Drudkh, whose no-tour, no-press, no-bathroom-breaks philosophy has seen them cramming all of eight albums and two EPs into an eight-year recording career -- and that's not even counting a multitude of side projects (Astrofaes, Blood of Kingu, Dark Ages, Hate Forest, Kladovest) used to while their time away whenever the cleaning staff finally managed to kick them out of the studio. Good grief, guys! But of course Drudkh's saving grace was always having enough talent and creativity to justify their workaholic ways…until now. For you see, 2010's Handful of Stars is that career crossroads of an album, foreshadowed long ago by veteran heavy metal pundits and cynics alike, that finds Drudkh altering their always eclectic but still predominantly black metal-rooted aesthetic dramatically enough for their die-hard black metal audience to rise up against them. At first, nothing appears to be out of sorts: a brief solo piano introduction named "Cold Landscapes" sets a somber mood (later reprised by its sibling acoustic guitar outro, "Listening to the Silence"), which is subsequently upheld by the prolonged melancholy of "Downfall of the Epoch," one of four typically lengthy tracks dominating this disc, as they do most every Drudkh LP. Problem is, the latter finds the Ukrainians not sounding like their normal, reliable selves, but rather straddling a fine line between Agalloch's ten-year-old blackened folk metal and the market-saturating post-metal of Isis, Cult of Luna, et. al (even down to the hoarse vocals that replace blackened croaks). By the time a few black metal gadgets (well blastbeats, at least) are whipped out like some kind of apologetic afterthought for ensuing epics "Towards the Light" (see the mildly jazzy mid-section), "Twilight Aureole" (pretty much forgettable: shock!), and "The Day Will Come" (featuring astonishingly alternative rock-sounding melodies), Drudkh's once mighty spell has been broken like a twig, mystifying Ukrainian lyrics included. Sure, parachuting listeners with little notion of the surrounding metallic landscape might very well think this is da bomb; nevertheless, all others will have a hard time accrediting Drudkh's mediocre take on widely available templates, especially in light of the mastery with which the group wielded its enticing pagan black metal mystique on so many triumphant albums past. What price, evolution? So now fans sit and wait: only time will tell how Drudkh will respond to the polarizing controversy conjured by Handful of Stars, but if history is any indication, at least they'll respond quickly.

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