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Vestige Of Virtue : Sophia

A long time coming, Vestige Of Virtue's debut has matured into a bittersweet poignancy that has a sound entirely its own.

Sophia: both wisdom and Goddess, of whose dual form Solomon wrote: "I loved her and sought her from my youth; I desired to take her for my bride, and became enamoured of her beauty". And so, also, might Vestige Of Virtue have written, patiently transcribing her truths amongst a quietly decaying background of dusty halls and sprawling, shrouded chambers. Not a vulgar ostentation, like the vast dome of the Hagia Sophia which bears her name and her aspect; more the faded Renaissance architecture of an elegant Florentine villa, weathered by the centuries: a former grandeur now steeped in character shaped by the passage of time. A place where wisdom and understanding might be revealed, at last, to those who dance a stately pavane with the ghosts that dwell within.

Would you step through the gates, perhaps lured by distant strains of music echoing through memory: thoughts of Funeral, My Dying Bride, Omit, Anathema, Old Man's Child, and more - such is the pedigree of veteran musicians Kjetil Ottersen, Frode Forsmo and Shaun Taylor-Steels? Or, perhaps, out of curiosity piqued by the strange, viewless window that is the music's enigmatic outer facade? Possibly, even, by purest chance: an unexpected encounter on paths shaped by philosophy, or melancholy, or gothic Romanticism?

If so, it is but a short journey to the entrance, inviting and made accessible to all by the gentle sadness of the violin leading into 'Decorum', and by the expansive, clearly-enunciated baritone of Frode Forsmo which follows. Initially, superficially, that might conjure up thoughts of Funeral's 'From These Wounds': though it is simply Forsmo's distinctive technique of shadowing the melody and - particularly - the cadence with a sorrowful expressiveness that dominates the first impression. At the same time, it is hard to think of a more appropriate vocalist for this album, with its avowed intent to combine modern and classical techniques; his contemporary quasi-religious, almost-concertato delivery is not only redolent of both but, in this context, beautiful.

And, past that, it is utterly obvious that 'Sophia' is no '...Wounds II' (or the direct child of any of the group's other collective or solo projects), nor does it try to be. Though some haunting familiarities from other works remain, they are worlds away from this introspective, analytical construct, filled with processions and complex layers of harmony based around a symphonic Gothic/Doom framework. The detailing is exquisite, synthesised and acoustic instruments carrying a surprisingly large amount of the album's music, although - like the atmospheric and often-soaring lead guitar and the inspired fills which have always characterised Shaun Taylor-Steels drumming - they weave seamlessly into a tapestry of sound that exceeds the sum of its parts. If ever an album could be said to have a feeling of completeness and continuity about it, to have been composed and meticulously arranged into a whole, this would be it. Even the slightly flattened, warm - yet occasionally distant - feel to the production fits perfectly into the reflective mood it creates.

In part, that may be because it has developed over years, since multi-instrumentalist Kjetil Ottersen began initial recording in 2009, and has had the intervening time to mature and to fully realise the themes being addressed, both musically and lyrically. Hence, the pensive reconciliation of an aging Machiavelli (the chosen pre-release track, 'Letter To Vettori') exemplifies the genuine, authentic resonance of the material and the concept. Broadly, it both seeks to convey the value of enlightenment, and to warn of the consequences of deliberately acting against such wisdom. Traversing such subjects as the value of Nietzschean will to power ('Worth'), or the destructive equivalence between desire and hate - introduced by Robert Frost's 'Fire And Ice' - in 'Ex Machina', the musical vignettes match that variety with tones from laconic melancholy to ominously threatening bombast, and styles that range from Death/Doom riff-and-growl to baroque classical. Heavier, too, than it first appears, it carries that doomy, rock feel paradoxically lightly, layering such new-world influences easily into the old-world ones: ever-evolving, ever-changing, yet still preserving a fascinating consistency of mood and pace.

It's easy to become absorbed in the flow: so much so that the closing, uplifting message - the embrace of Sophia triumphant over fear and death - seems almost to come too soon, though the album is not a short one. The final, drawn-out "Farewell" marks the conclusion of a superbly-crafted exploration through some of the many rooms of that metaphorical mansion, offering a bittersweet poignancy that, though Gothic in origin, has a sound entirely its own in the Doom world. In fact, were I to compare this to anything, it would probably be to the slowest neoclassical Gothic Metal of latterday Lacrimosa, which shares some of the same clean and precise mix of influences, though - of course - has nothing in common with the vocal style.

Comparison, though, is of limited value. Unavoidable, perhaps, because of the credentials Vestige Of Virtue collectively possess; if only to say that they are not retreading old ground, but offering a distinct character of their own. Consummately. Step through those gates and take your place with the audience of ghosts, here in this time-honoured place where 'Sophia''s sad, gentle smile awaits.

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Reviewer's rating: 9/10


Tracklist :
1. Decorum
2. Worth
3. Scales And Blindfold
4. Letter To Vettori
5. The Soothing
6. Ex Machina
7. Portrait

Duration : Approx. 50 minutes

Visit the Vestige Of Virtue bandpage.

Reviewed on 2014-09-27 by Mike Liassides
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