Krista Van Guilder might have a quintessential Dutch surname, but she’s synonymous with Massachusetts in the Northeast of the United States. A veteran musician in the state’s doom metal scene over the last thirty years, Krista made her name in Warhorse, as their original vocalist before they signed to Southern Lord Recordings for their acclaimed As Heaven Turns to Ash… LP in 2001. A glance at her past projects shows a person who started her music career in a thrash metal band as far back as 1995 (Dahlia’s Dead) before gaining recognition as the vocalist and guitarist in doom trio, Lucubro. They split in 2004, and a 2005 demo for death metal act, Obsidian Halo, went nowhere. Most people know her for Second Grave, who released their only full-length record in 2016 before going their separate ways. Out of their ashes comes Benthic Realm, who usher in their debut record after two well-received EPs. It took a long time to reach this point, but Krista Van Guilder might now sit back and wonder if she has realised the potential that always existed in her art.
Benthic Realm make no apologies for playing doom metal. Their fuzzy guitar settings, steady tempos, and abrasive bass guitar shapes could belong on any early Pallbearer or Yob record. The trio’s tendency to push through the six-minute barrier on most songs speaks of a band that need time to warm up before they reel you in. You might need to crack your shoulder blades after absorbing so much guitar distortion for more than an hour. But, of course, Benthic Realm have a superior weapon to most doom bands – they have Krista Van Guilder’s spellbinding vocals. Listen how she incants her harmonious voice like Milena Eva of GGGOLDDD while striking her guitar in a thick tar of power chord disruption in the opening mood piece of ‘Raise the Banners’. Her death metal roar at the beginning of ‘Traitors Amongst Us’ is even more impressive. Here, the trio mix filthy sludge stylings with an anguished outpouring of emotion worthy of Chelsea Wolfe. This is not your average doom metal dirge.
It soon becomes clear that Benthic Realm have little in common with Sleep but more of an affinity with classic Soundgarden. Modern doom bands like Famyne and Treedeon would be proud of ‘Course Correct’, with its agitated tempo and adventurous riffing in the intro. You can hear the anguish of Tool’s ‘Sober’ in the rhythm of the verse parts. Those of you familiar with Drain STH from the late 1990s will recognise the glory of the chorus harmonies on display. Unlike most bands, Benthic Realm wander into a chorus rather than dive headfirst in a rush to grab your attention. You need to let the thick guitar textures seep into your collar bone. ‘I Will Wait’ aims to pacify you with fifty-nine seconds of clean guitar reflections before establishing a regular Black Sabbath beat. The grinding metal tangents at 05:48 are ugly enough to earn a nod of approval from the Melvins fanbase.
How much can you achieve with such a simple set up of instruments turned up to maximum volume? It’s a question that haunts doom metal artists and alienates many metal acolytes who are sceptical of the lethargic tempos and shameless Black Sabbath worship. Benthic Realm are not one of these bands. Maureen Murphy’s expeditionary bass signals in ‘Summon the Tide’ transport you to a misty waterfall setting before Van Guilder ramps up the overdrive and steps on the grunge pedal. Dan Blomquist’s vertiginous tom drum rituals on ‘What Lies Beneath’ have more in common with Dead Can Dance. The mood of ‘Veiled Embrace’ is what Lycia would sound like if they experimented with a post-metal soundscape.
You can understand why Krista Van Guilder handled lead vocals in every band she played in over the last three decades – this woman takes risks with her voice and holds nothing back in her emotions. You always bite your bottom lip and narrow your eyes for the lonely beauty of her melodies. The chorus to the title track will force you to look up to the sky and declare, “I believe my body is a vessel/ It speaks to me, keeps me focused,” as if uttering a truth that festered inside you for too many years. The way she ascends an octave for the final chorus rendition of closing song, ‘As It Burns’, is powerful enough to make your knees tremble. You can hear a self-taught unorthodoxy in her voice. It glows with an abundance of personality that a flawless singer from a classical background could never reproduce.
It might be a bit too long for those with only a passive interest in doom metal, and the song structures do little to expand beyond a steady beat and a thick crust of ugly guitar posturing, but Vessel is a fine record. The album’s flaws are easy to dismiss once you fall under the spell of the music. Those predatory death metal vocals in ‘Traitors Amongst Us’ make only a cameo appearance at the beginning of the LP and could do with more utilisation. Van Guilder’s amateur lead guitar phrasings will land her no musician-of-the-year awards, yet they ache with a naïve charm that most shredders would not contemplate. There’s a reason why people like Krista Van Guilder persist with their art over three decades for no material gain – they do it because they need to be in the studio or on stage to find meaning in their lives. We can all take inspiration from this and learn the lesson of self-belief.
Release Date: 01/07/2023
Record Label: Self-released
Standout tracks: Traitors Amongst Us, Course Correct, Summon the Tide
Suggested Further Listening: Famyne – II: The Ground Below (2022), Everest Queen – Murmurations (2022), Treedeon – New World Hoarder (2023)