Black metal? hit or miss. Modern black metal? more hits than misses. Portuguese modern black metal ghouls Gaerea? Only hits so far! You can read me throw every synonym and element of purple prose in praise of their previous record Limbo here. So, when I heard the first rumblings of their latest offering, Mirage, I hightailed it to the editor and put my name down to find even more verbose ways to praise, what I knew would be a terrific piece of extreme music.
And here we are!
Gaerea is a name that should be a household name for anyone tired of the mockery “trve” black metal has become over the last few years. While the ultra-DIY aesthetic of 90’s Norwegian black metal holds a special place in many fans’ hearts, we are now in the age of RGB-lit hexacore PCs, hundreds of virtual amp and cab sims, audio processors, and VSTs in 2022. There is no need to eschew modern production values and all the precision and nuance that thoughtful arrangements and mixing do to enhance the overall product. The Porto masked boys understood this MO with their debut Unsettling Whispers. Their breakout record was Limbo which was the sonic personification of modern melodic black metal and set the standard for the genre so high, that many were concerned that even they couldn’t match, or better still, top it.
Moments into album opener “Memoir”, the listener is already treated to all that Gearea goodness, tremolo-picked chord work, soaring melancholic melodies, blistering drums, and tortured vocals. As much as “Memoir” is a great track, it was something fans of Limbo could nod their heads at meeting expectations. The true surprise hits us with their first released single, the aggressive, beautiful, and cacophonous “Salve”. A perfect herald of everything Gaerea represents, ramped up to an eleven, “Salve” opens with a frenetic series of tremolo-picked ascending panic chords, in a way that feels equal parts brutal and menacingly off-putting. Gaerea picked a great song to be the first release of Mirage, as this track bounces in and out of all of Gaerea’s songwriting plays.
Gaerea explores so many different moods over the runtime of Mirage, all through the tempos chosen, arrangements of ambience and aggression, melody and mania; every element of which “Ebb”s and flows into each other. Whether it is the doomier “Deluge” or a track like “Arson”, a track so full of violent despair, Gaerea layers otherwise monotonous and stereotypical riffs with melodic spice at a tempo allowing the brain to autofill the spaces with its own contributions. Taking songwriting cues from brother bands like Mgla, Harakiri for the Sky, White Ward, Der Weg Einer Freiheit, Gaerea understands the virtues of overlaying complimentary and conflicting vibes over each other in a way that just makes sense. The frequent mixups of song tempos, as they rile the listener into a frenzy with their blast-beaten black metal, bringing you close to the cliff, only to shove you off the edge into an ambient section with heavy delay/reverbed guitars. This contrast is the equivalent of being continuously weighed down by an oppressive boulder only to have it suddenly lifted, the weightlessness is severely heightened by this kind of switch. Mirage is littered with several of these instances.
On Mirage, Gaerea chose to focus on tighter, shorter, and more focused tracks. The longest track “Arson” clocking in just shy of nine minutes, while most of the tracks hover around the five to the six-minute mark. This is different from the tome-line eleven-minute elephantine tracks that bookended their previous release, Limbo. However, the argument is that Mirage layers higher levels of density into their shorter track lengths, opting for blissful claustrophobia over the beauty of space. The title track “Mirage” does a great job of employing both density and space to equal success. Of particular note, the dead-stop guitar riffs in the intro section are remarkably fresh, and the single-note ambience in the third act of the song is positively Mogwai-ish. This skillful addition of so many post- elements in their songs elevates Gaerea over the riffraff. Continuing on, “Mantle” has a shimmery-sparkly guitar intro that made its first appearance on Limbo but I cannot help but grin every time they choose to use that tone. It’s so antithetical to the lo-fi ideas that mire the black metal genre, yet it does a better job of encapsulating the grim and frostbitten emotions of the genre by etherealizing its agony. Another instant favorite after “Salve” and “Arson”, is the album ender “Laude”. As the name suggests, “Laude” makes the surprising turn into an almost happy space. The choice of major chord progressions evokes a triumphant mood in the track. The stark contrast of the vocalist’s shrieks of violent sadness over these victorious riffs is so giggle-inducing, in the best of ways. Very rarely does extreme metal truly surprise me, but “Laude” does it, albeit in a very subtle way. Also, I see you with your whispered “We Are Gaerea” nudging us with the proper pronunciation of your band name, just before you burst into a mainstream success! Lastly, I was fortunate enough to review the deluxe release of the album, and I wish the bonus track “Dormant” was added to the standard release because it is a winner, just like every other track on Mirage.
Gaerea is one of those bands, like Mgla, that took a deep dive into anonymity as an aesthetic, choosing to mask its members and let the music take centerstage over the burdens of individual celebrities, with each member wearing a bag-veil with their own sigil. I really wish I could compliment each of the five members of Gaerea on putting their absolute best into Mirage. The guitar work is exquisite, and I’ve spent many a word over the reviews of Limbo and now Mirage waxing eloquent on just how novel their writing is, all while staying within the so-called bounds of the genre. Nobody can discount the fact that Gaerea is most definitely a black metal band, but they play with their genre tropes so damned well! A big part of the diversity of tempos is the drummer, who ever since Unsettling Whispers understands exactly what is expected of his role in creating moods with his drum sequences. If there was ever an understudy to the great Darkside (Mgla), it’s Gaerea’s drummer. The vocalist proves yet again just how novel modern black metal vocals can be, with his vocal lines always just a hair’s breadth away from what seems like a breaking point, borrowing heavily from Advent Sorrow, Karg, Harakiri, and even Behemoth with his registers.
To wrap this up with a neat little bow, the choice of black and gold were chosen for the music videos, band promo pictures, and album cover, of the sigil hood in melted gold, is genius. While Limbo’s artwork was artistically supreme, Mirage wins in its own space.
Gaerea is one of the best modern black metal bands out there right now, and Mirage proves to us, quite resoundingly why. An innovating package of despair at its most introspective and melancholic, its most explosive and carnal, Mirage is a story of the beautiful suffering of the human spirit. Oh man, it is amazing!