CELESTIAL SEASON – The Secret Teachings

CELESTIAL SEASON – The Secret Teachings

When discussing my review of Thurisaz’ excellent "Re-Incentive" album, Viral Propaganda PR’s David recommended the new Celestial Season’s release "The Secret Teachings". Now, I had never heard about these Nijmegen, Gelderland, Dutchmen before so I happily took advantage of the opportunity to familiarize myself with the recording. The occasion turned out to be threefold as Burning World Records was releasing the new album along with the two classic ones: "Forever Scarlet Passion" (1993) and "Solar Lovers" (1995), so I was in for a triple dose of gloom and doom which I immediately proceeded to immerse myself in. This review, then, briefly describes the two predecessors before diving deeper into the new material.

Celestial Season is one more of those bands which have sprouted from the so called Peaceville Three Of Doom/Death (Anathema, My Dying Bride, Paradise Lost), one more I have never known about, interestingly, from the Netherlands, the birth country of Officium Triste. Founded in 1991 by Stefan Ruiters (vocals), Robert Ruiters (guitars), Jeroen Haverkamp (guitars), Lucas Van Slengtenhorst (bass) and Jason Köhnen (drums, various) they took on the direction of Anathema and My Dying Bride had taken on their debuts ("Serenades" and "As The Flower Withers", respectively) for their debut "Promises" demo (1992), but already the first album "Forever Scarlet Passion", released by Adipocere Records in 1993) also heavily referenced Paradise Lost’s "Gothic" (1992). Take the opener, easily the best track of the 9, "Cherish My Pain", which would not have been out of place on My Dying Bride’s classic "Turn Loose The Swans" with its abundance of violins and genuine death riffs a’la Obituary. The subsequent "The Merciful" and "In Sweet Bitterness" stylistically both follow suit but the latter’s stunning melodicism leans heavily towards gothic perhaps foreshadowing the likes of Tristania or Theatre Of Tragedy, especially due to the shy clean vocals a’la Anathema’s Vincent Cavanagh. As it is widely known, there would be no Peaceville without Type O’Negative and the looming shadow of an already sometimes stoner quality falls over the next few tracks, but the foreshadowing of Opeth’s "Orchid" stylings is more interesting (Ophelia) as is Daylight Dies’ "No Reply" (Together In Solitude) prompting you to ask the usual question in such cases: is it a coincidence or influence? The remaining tracks seem to be a war between doom and death with songwriting quality taking a little of a back seat and the lively more heavy metal bonus (For Eternity) a notable if not striking surprise. "Forever Scarlet Passion" is not perfect but it does deserve a solid 4.5/6, even 27 years later.

Naturally, the follow-up "Solar Lovers" (released by Displeased Records in 1995) is a significant improvement over the debut. Sonically and melodically, we are both moving through My Dying Bride’s "The Angel And The Dark River" (1995, arguably their magnum opus) and towards the more gothic "Like Gods Of The Sun" which is evident on "Decamerone", "Solar Child" and the instrumental "Body As Canvas", the change in sound almost certainly due to Jeroen Haverkamp’s departure and the arrival of Pim Van Zanen, who will remain the band’s guitarist to this day. Although similar, these tracks don’t quite reach the excellence of their influence. Not so "Soft Embalmer Of the Still Midnight", richly multiple melodic near funeral doom changing like female mood or the little faster Black Sabbathian "Will You Wait For The Sun?" which can reasonably reference Tool at the time of the release, as can "Vienna" until you remember that it’s an Ultravox cover. There seems to be a little bit of that "now we’re death, now we’re doom" confusion present from the debut but everything gets swept away by the amazing "The Scent Of Eve", the last song proper where, again, Tool and My Dying Bride fight for primacy shedding multiple stunning melodies all over the place. I’m not sure why we needed the instrumental (A Tune From The Majestic Queen’s Garden), to wrap things up (but then again, why do we need ANY instrumentals since "Orion" from "Master Of Puppets") but its predecessor contributes to an up-grade, too, in no small thanks to violinist Maaike Aarts (the first violinist of Royal Concertgebouw Orchestra since 2004) and the Rotterdam and Amsterdam constervatories baroque violinist Jiska Ter Bals. In this aspect we see here even a greater similarity to My Dying Bride on their first 3 albums. In all, "Solar Lovers" deserves a 5/6 and that’s what it gets.

Following the release of the 2nd album, Celestial Season experienced additional changes in line-up. Maaike left and Robert Ruiters a year later, Olly Smit taking his place to this day. I have not gotten a chance to check out their following albums: "Orange" (Big Bloke Records, 1997), "Chrome" (HKM,1999), "Lunchbox Dialogues" (La Guapa Records, 2000) or the
"Songs From The Second Floor" EP (Drunken Maria, 2001), which turned out to be their swansong, but they had to have contained some problems which eventually resulted in their break up and a 10 year hiatus. Even when they had reunited in 2011, they only released a remake of "Decamerone" single from "Solar Lovers", before practically falling silent for another 8 years. Then, with the addition of returning violinist Jiska Ter Bals and cellist Elianne Anemaat they had begun writing new material which ended up as the central theme of this review, the 11 track "The Secret Teachings" released on October 23rd by Burning World Records. How is Celestial Season 2020 different from and how are they like their humble beginnings?

In many ways, "The Secret Teachings" is a totally different animal from both "Forever Scarlet Passion" and "Solar Lovers". It seems Celestial Season took pages from modern My Dying Bride as much as Paradise Lost and I mean "Ghost Of Orion" as much as "Obsidian", although obviously all 3 records were being recorded at the same time. Again, then, we ask the same question from before: inspiration or coincidence? This is relevant especially in light of Stefan’s growls sounding remarkably similar to the modern Nicholas "Nick" John Arthur Holmes (Paradise Lost). Additional influences are The Drowning and, not surprisingly, since both bands are Dutch, Officium Triste from last year’s "The Death Of Gaia". But the all-encompassing influence, to the point of including a decent if superfluous cover of "Red Water", is Type O’Negative from "October Rust" (1995). Indeed, to sum up Celestial Season 2020 in one sentence: still doom, barely death and abundantly stoner metal.

Three tracks stand out from the very first spin: the excellent opener acting title track "The Secret Teachings of All Ages", the phenomenal "Long Forlorn Tears" and the multimelodic "Salt Of The Earth". The opener is a very melodic, abundantly violined funeral doom, neither Swallow The Sun nor Daylight Dies would cut out from their new material, with the melody around 6:45 mark particularly memorable. "Long Forlorn Tears" is an easy favorite, somewhat set up by the similar "The Ourobouros" and the instrumental "Dolores", which is why its creepy mournful atmospheric melodiscism hits like a ton of bricks with the impression of being slowly deliberately buried alive and not being able to help it, which is reinforced by lyrics about fallen angels and demons ruling the Earth. Needless to say, the track is both breathtaking and heartbreaking but, unlike its 4 predecessors, it suddenly picks up the pace in the middle for some tasty Black Sabbath-ian chugging. Finally, "Salt Of The Earth" brings back a lot of the classic My Dying Bride stylings, including some death metal riffing all bathed in a slightly industrial sauce.

As for the remaining tracks, 3 are still very good: the aforementioned "The Ourobouros", the trumpeted "Lunar Child" which strongly structurally recalls Pantera’s "The Floods", and the last song proper "A Veil of Silence" reminiscent of Anathema’s "Judgment" album. But the rest of the material, with the possible exception of the Anathemanian "Amor Fati" can rightly be described as Grateful Dead/Pink Floyd on Type O’Negative jazz jamboree, or, to put it another way, excuses to show off Olly’s and Pim’s considerable guitar skills and that’s on top of 3 short instrumentals. "Amor Fati" is a near instrumental, very similar to Anathema’s cover of Roy Harper "Hope" in the way it is started by a British accented spoken word, although the message: "when you arise in the morning think what a precious privilege it is to be alive, to breathe, to think, to enjoy, to love…look well into thyself: there’s a source of strength that wilt always spring up if thou wilt always look" is admittedly strikingly more uplifting than "Hope"’s scathing indictment of the "pathetic direction of mankind", especially from such a depressing doom band. For this reason alone I consider it a viable part of this album.

Then there are tracks which could have been better, containing some interesting parts and ideas but ultimately failing. Take the second track on the album: triumphant but aimless "For Twisted Loveless" sandwitched between the two cogent numbers as if it were merely a warm up or a transition. Or how about the least favorite "They Saw It Come From The Sky" which starts with a fine riff only to disintigrate in pointlessness, wasted. Jerry Garcia called – he wants his style back. And did we really need 3 instrumentals? (Dolores, White Lotus Day, Beneath The Temple Mount). Finally, why did there need to be a Type O’Negative cover topping off the already bloated album for any other reason than to emphasize the obvious influence? These are all flaws which cost the album 0.5 point in the otherwise solid 5/6 album for a score of 4.5.

"The Secret Teachings" is both, then, a return to Celestial Seasoning’s roots and a new path taken by its creators. Certainly its release is made more attractive by added remasters of "Forever Scarlet Passion" and "Solar Lovers", and, on that note, the album grades combined with the new album’s result in also a 4.5 grade. But this new album is also a bit dissapointing for someone who knows Celestial Season from these 3 releases out of which "Solar Lovers" seems the best. There’s so much unrealized potential on this new album, for instance, not enough death metal, not enough solid riffing, an often disturbing lack of variety. But the occasion of 3 albums released simultaneously is a good one for those unfamiliar with this Dutch outfit. For this reason I recommend checking this out assuring you that time spent with these releases will not be wasted.