Woods of Ypres do things that metal bands are not supposed to do. Head songwriter David Gold writes in the first person, but doesn't indulge in any role playing. He battles inner demons, not supernatural entities. The lyrics encompass vulnerability and longing as well as anger—the latter arises out of the former. Musically, Woods tackles several genres within a single album, which is refreshing in a time when bands rewrite the same song 10 times and call it an album.
Woods 4 includes some "Peaceville 3"-style doom, some melodic, mid-paced Katatonia/Amorphis rockers, some orchestrated piano-and-strings sections, some blasting BM and DM bits, and a couple hammer-headed sludge tunes. So although the band's PR material labels their sound as black and doom, listeners looking for an earful of one or the other will come away unfulfilled. But for those who want variety and regard scene policing with contempt, Woods have delivered another enjoyable and highly successful album.
Thematically, the album that Woods 4 most reminds me of is Marillion’s Misplaced Childhood. Both albums begin with the death of a relationship and chronicle the personal journey that follows. In Marillion’s case, vocalist Fish loses himself in backstage debauchery and in various identity crises provoked by the touring life. For David Gold, the post-breakup journey is just that: he takes an opportunity to travel abroad (“Dive into exile!” as “Dirty Window of Opportunity” puts it), and deals with isolation and regret while finding a new life in South Korea.
Musically the band covers more ground than ever. The variety of the material is necessary to sustain the listener’s interest for a 78-minute album. The sequencing of songs helps as well. There are breaks between tracks (unlike Misplaced Childhood), but after a few listens to the entire album, I started hearing the songs as a series of suites. The opening of the album is consumed with gloom and sadness, and the tempos reflect this. The doom is quite My Dying Bridal on “Everything I Touch Turns to Gold (then to coal)”, with Gold's “whoa-oh-oh”s standing in for MDB’s violin lines. The opening movement ends with “I Was Buried in Mount Pleasant Cemetery" (Gold’s favourite titling theme has a rhyming scheme) and the narrator's figurative death before he assumes a new identity as a single man in a foreign land. The most intriguing stretch of songs lies at the heart of the running order, from “Wet Leather” (the album's most immediately catchy song), “Suicide Cargoload” and “Halves and Quarters” (two brief but heavy rockers) and “You Are Here With Me (in this sequence of dreams)” a lullaby/lament with instrumentation by Musk Ox. This is where the album's depth and variety is really evident.
With all this going on, the album works it way from the personal to the universal, from the opening scene of a breakup to the closing track’s call for a tenuous truce between sexes: “Women move on. Men move on.” Tellingly, this is where the voice switching to the 2nd person, as if to impart some hard-fought wisdom to the listener. This song—"Move On! (the woman will always leave the man)"—also invokes the seasons, a nice reference to the themes from previous Woods releases.
Woods of Ypres have outdone themselves with this album, and again have demonstrated that metal doesn't have to be purely a vehicle for escapism. The plain-spoken nature of Gold's lyrics might throw some people off, but for me, Gold's words and images paint vivid, precise pictures. Each song is like a heavy metal Alex Colville painting, a scene revealed in unforgiving, relentless light.