Covenant are perhaps in a strange position nowadays. Their days at the peak of the Futurepop “movement” – where they were one of the titans of the scene, something made by United States of Mind, and then rammed home by the skyscraping brilliance of Northern Light – are now well over a decade in the past, and in the following years have released a number of albums…none of which have quite measured up.
Yeah, so each album has had at least one or two absolute belters contained within (particularly the much under-rated Modern Ruin), but something, somewhere, has never quite clicked over full albums. They have, mind, remained an exceptional live draw over the years, with the band digging deep into their now-impressive back catalogue and keeping the shows interesting, while still playing “the hits”. In 2016, then, where does that leave the band as they release album number nine?
In a dark, dark place.
Covenant have never exactly been a band that release songs full of joy. Their songs often have a gravitas lacking in the material of many of their peers, and that is in part at least thanks to Eskil Simonsson’s deep, forboding vocals, but also down to their willingness to look to the past for inspiration for their lyrics in particular. But despite this and their often darker themes, they have managed to combine that with music that lifts, that has the ability to cause crowds and/or dancefloors to (metaphorically) explode in ecstasy.
Here, though, the gloomy outlook for the world has seeped into the songs, and the result is a dark, initially difficult to penetrate album that may well turn casual listeners off.
Which is a shame, as there is some of Covenant’s best material in a while here.
It opens with Dies Irae [Day of Wrath], using a trick similar to Der Leiermann in putting, in this case, the words to the funeral hymn to a typically Covenant-esque beat to introduce the album, and the more you examine the words, it gives the impression of opening an album with an overbearing sense of shame. One where the band are furious, and depressed, with what they see in the world, but are powerless to make a difference themselves.
The album is, to my ears, pretty much a direct counterpoint to Northern Light. That was cold, but bathed in glittering light. This is also cold, but shrouded in a suffocating darkness.
Sound Mirrors was introduced in the summer, and was explicitly explained as being inspired by the European reaction – both good and bad – to the Syrian refugee crisis that still continues, many months after it was headline-grabbing, and something of an ugly political football as various parties went one way or the other to help or hinder. Simonsson clearly is ashamed of his fellow Europeans, and their mistrust and dislike of the migrants, barely willing to offer help as many freeze or starve at border lines. The song itself is still a great one, with a huge, angry chorus the beating heart of the song as Simonsson begs his fellow listeners to pay attention to the humanity of the situation – one that still remains a grave one.
He strains his voice yet further in I Close My Eyes, as he takes the subject further, again it seems looking at the same crisis, and perhaps imagining himself in their position, fighting to be heard and fighting for a life of some sort.
“if I had the faith in mankind…” is the key line in Morning Star, a staggering, mid-paced track that sees Eskil questioning himself and those that appear to be his polar opposites, which soars and gains height by subtle multi-tracking of his vocals in the chorus, and surprisingly the subtle treatment results in a devastating effect. Synths sparkle and sweep around his voice, like he is glowing within an icebound world, amid “the Blinding Dark” that gives the album a title.
Also superb is If I Give My Soul, a dark, bass-driven track of the kind Covenant do so well, and a tingle of familiarity that I had first time of hearing made me dig back…and confirmed that they road-tested a version of it on tour in 2009, and it has only been released now. Quite why they sat on this track for so long I’ve no idea, but maybe they needed the right atmosphere to release it in, and it fits perfectly well here.
It gets better beyond that, too, with the pounding Cold Reading – one of those deep, trance-like epics that are hallmark of the band’s live sets. It is fairly simple, it builds and builds, and sounds absolutely phenomenal really, really loud.
It isn’t all great, mind. Rider on a White Horse – despite having the assistance of a female vocalist (a first for Covenant, I think), this is a slow-paced, one-dimensional, and most of all dreary track that repeats it’s refrain endlessly, and feels an awful lot longer than the five-minutes-and-change that it actually is. In addition, there isn’t actually much of an album here – two short interludes that add little, and two closing instrumentals that are easily skippable just seven actual songs here, even if most of them are very good indeed.
Maybe – particularly given the draining, dark nature of the album, the band decided that was enough, and they could say no more. But even with the short running time, this is Covenant coming out of their insular world, and commenting on politics overtly for perhaps the first time.
In these times, any voice speaking out against what are becoming ever-more worrying times (this was mostly written prior to Trump’s shock election victory) are welcome right now, and while this offers few answers, what it does do is articulate such a common feeling right now – that depressing feeling of helplessness as many of us realise that the world, and our peers, are perhaps not half as progressive and open-minded as maybe we initially thought.
Covenant – unexpectedly remaining an essential voice to help in guiding us through the darkness.