Clear is the new opaque. In the hands of recent Enslaved, Agalloch and Ludicra, black metal's traditional obfuscation cedes to glinting clarity. Same with Saros. In this San Francisco band's vision of black metal, further focused by producer Billy Anderson (Neurosis/Sleep/High on Fire), everything once hidden is laid bare. Guitar riffs sparkle where elsewhere they would blur. Diatonic harmonies cadence with the crispness of chamber music, often augmented by languorous female vocal lines. Leila Rauf rasps lyrics up-front -- this is a human voice producing those wraith-like shrieks. Drums (played by Blood Eagle, of Weakling) propel rather than overtake, mostly abandoning blastbeats for looser rhythms. Acrid Plains's shifts from trad-metal crunch to pastoral acoustic prog feel frictionless.
It's refreshing to hear metal with so much emphasis on composition, even if it comes at the expense of grit. Free-flowing as "Acrid Plains" and "The Sky Will End Soon" are, there's also a baroque stringency to their structures that harkens back to ...And Justice For All and late-period Death (and, more recently, Saros's sometime live comrades Dreaming Dead). If the clean riffing in "Coriolis" and "Devouring Conscience" sounds tame and even antiseptic compared to the ruddy mash of most black metal, the lack of hardness also kicks the doors wide open for violins and acoustic guitar passages that feel like essential parts of this music, not just foils to the louder stuff. Forget the typical "beauty and the beast" duality. Even the beastly parts are beautiful on Acrid Plains. Otherwise, it's all balance -- between heft and weightlessness, light and dark, warmth and frigidity.