Remember the old epithet “The Boring Belgians”? It’s certainly not the case any more (if it was ever true), either in the football field or in the recording studio!
Post-metal trio Pothamus are the latest in a wave of very talented young post-rock bands based in Belgium. They’ve been together since 2015, releasing some lauded demo tapes in their early days before having the patience and bottle to slowly create this, their debut album Raya, released in December 2020. Pothamus produced this album in collaboration with the Consouling Agency, a fascinating and caring stable that also includes the renowned Brutus among others. Pothamus might be described as sludge, post-rock, post-metal, ambient metal, reminiscent of their illustrious countrymen Amenra, but with a trademark sound all off their own – built around what has been termed “tribalesque” drums and percussion, hypnotic rhythms and tuneful swirls of reverb.
Recorded and mixed at GAM studios (Waimes) by producer Chiaran Verheyden (Psychonaut – Unfold the God Man), and mastered at MotorMusic (Mechelen) by Laurens Grossens, Raya is the culmination of three years’ work. It’s mostly quite dense sound but interspersed with ethereal ambience. I’ve recently reviewed albums by Dawnwalker and Kimono Drag Queens that have that same hypnotic mix of dense, heavyweight soundscapes mingled with pieces of melodic relief. If you’ve heard and liked those two albums, you’ll love this!
Pothamus have what is often described as a “long-form” style in their compositions, so it typically builds slowly, organically, hypnotically. Guitar work is restrained, reliant on reverb and loops, vocals are chant-like, echoing, limited but effective (further parallels with The Kimonos here) all sitting lightly over the real powerbase, the drumming / percussion work and heavyweight bass lines.
The sound mix generally is cathedral-like, it’s not completely clean and crisp at times but I think that’s a deliberate element being brought to play, you can imagine this music being performed in that sort of atmospheric, pagan place, and sense the dark vibes lurking in dark corners, gargoyles and nameless entities craning out to absorb the groove! Although badged as Sludge, it’s not crushingly doomy in the way of so many, that’s where the term “tribalistic” accurately captures the overall production to the same extent as Kimono Drag Queens – where KDQ use Native Australian rhythms, Pothamus use Celtic-sounding influences to the same end (although I swear there’s a didgeridoo on the title track!). It certainly has the same hypnotic, captivating effect on me.
The opening track Orath sets the tone for the rest of the album, a 12 minute long creation that ebbs and flows, ethereal vocals floating over guitar and bass work that chugs, builds, recedes, all in awe of a swirling drums pattern that is an ever-present dark tension, the pace seemingly quickening even though the drums remain the same, mesmerisng. It works for me, you release a long breath when the music finally fades away.
There’s no let-up as the band wade into Viso, another ten-minute-long creation that uses sustained guitar and vocals to keep the tension running and adds to it with a simple yet perniciously pounding bass line. It’s another track that conjures up the “drums from the deep” in the depths of (Lord of the Rings) Moria!
Heravis I is the first of two shorter tracks, lighter in tone, still fascinating percussion, a nicely melodic, echoey guitar line married to distant chanting to provide an interlude, an almost pastoral moment of relief. Heravis II continues the same lightness of touch, a beautifully simple, clean bass line sustaining and underpinning the choral nature of the synth, guitar and vocals. Again keeping me spell-bound!
The title track Raya is an epic, nearly 16 minutes of percussion (reminds me of the hypnotic drum pattern on the old Fleetwood Mac track “Tusk”!), organically building and ebbing that same lingering tension from the two opening tracks. The bass work is particularly impressive, it’s a sparse approach that uses a throbbing but clean sound in contrast to the reverb guitar work. The two together create a riff that isn’t bone-crushingly heavy but is still dense, atmospheric, added to with more distant, chant-like vocals, a touch of goth, a raft of meaty rhythm that immerses you. It’s a worthy distillation of the album’s overall vibe.
Varos is comparatively tranquil, a sense of relative calm after the density of Raya. There’s still that swaying, rhythmic beat, maybe the creatures are retreating back into their dark spaces….
This is a fascinating creation as an album, combining ‘tribal’ drumming rhythms with droning, restrained guitar work. As I said earlier, it’s quite heavy, atmospheric, but fresh, walls of sound mixed with lighter ethereal soundscapes. Like bands such as Dawnwalker and Kimono Drag Queens, that hypnotic counter-balancing of dense and melodic sounds makes for a satisfying listen – another worthy addition to the ambient post-metal genre. For a first album the overall sound created by these three young composers is very impressive, it feels like a really mature piece of writing and I recommend you give it a whirl!