Autumn Ni Dubhghaill started her Forever Autumn musical project in 2001 and has released four albums since then, culminating in 2019’s Howls in the Forest at Dusk, which might be the most terrifying acoustic LP of all time. You could invent any number of sub-genres to describe her music – acoustic doom, blackened folk, ritual wave – but it might be easier to think of her latest EP as black metal without electric guitars and blast beats. It’s fair to say her art is proud to be in the uneasy listening category, not least because Crowned in Skulls aims to be an exploration of witchery and shamanism through music.
As a multi-instrumentalist, Autumn Ni Dubhghaill has the tools to realise her vision of reaching an emotional frenzy between hysteria and euphoria on opener, ‘The Forest and the Nyght’. Her howling voice will make you cringe as the words crack in her throat and break upon release like a child with underdeveloped vocal cords. A word of warning here: you’ll need to listen to her harsher vocals with a great deal of perseverance before they sink in and become less grating on your ears. Fortunately, she brings in Aaron Stainthorpe of My Dying Bride to handle the verse parts as her gleaming acoustic guitar chords interact with the brooding cello of bandmate, Jon McGrath, in a suspicious embrace. Aaron’s sorrowful croon radiates like a gothic Roy Orbison and smooths out the rough edges of Autumn’s unrestrained emotional outbursts, but it makes for a bewildering experiment.
The forty-five seconds of ‘Death Folk’ are exactly what the song title suggests – an attempt at death metal on an acoustic guitar with a repeated scream of “Exsilium Incorpore” in the Latin language. Er… okay… Do you want a chilling instrumental interlude next? ‘Incense and Deer Skulls’ fidgets and flickers like a person on death row with the contents of his last meal ready to depart through his bowels. She takes the cello from Jon McGrath on this song and manipulates it, so it sounds as ugly as an elephant sneeze. It’s captivating enough to fill the gaps between the simple folk guitar passages, but you wonder why you keep looking over your shoulder in paranoia. That’s the effect this music has on your nervous system.
Crowned in Skulls might be too extreme and too unorthodox for you to process, but the final two songs are the strongest cuts on the record and are well worth the wait if you can get past the jarring witchery of the first three. ‘Dried Herbs in Water’ is doom metal without electric guitars. A funereal tempo holds it together as Autumn explores her higher-register voice and wails like a distressed earthquake survivor. You could imagine GGGOLDDD attempting something like this on their next record but with a subtle embroidery of electronics rather than cellos in the background. The menacing grunt sample at the end of every sixteen bars is like a shivering tiger in search of food. Autumn’s voice croons under the textures of glistening folk guitar chords, but the Lingua Ignota vibe is never far away. You don’t play music like this in the presence of other people. That would be like showing them your pornography collection.
Should Autumn Ni Dubhghaill consider conventional singing techniques for her future material? Her harsh voice is uncomfortable in its proud savagery, but her cleaner vocals ache with the beautiful agony of Emma Ruth Rundle and need little in the way of surgery. Listen to closing track, ‘Under Shadows of Annwn’ – is this not what Nirvana would have sounded like for the mooted album they had planned with REM’s Michael Stipe before Kurt Cobain put a shotgun in his mouth? How poignant is the guitar and cello combination here? Each brittle word leaves Autumn’s mouth with an extra shiver, just like Cobain’s performance in Unplugged in New York. What a way to end an EP, and what a surprise!
Though likely to inspire a cold reaction as much as a warm one, Crowned in Skulls dares to be different and operates in extremes your mind did not fathom until now. Things are not as unnerving as they seem if you can see past the wide-eyed intensity of Forever Autumn’s singer and can concentrate on her musical arrangements.
Release Date: 03/02/2023
Record Label: Self Released
Standout tracks: Dried Herbs in Water; Under Shadows of Annwn
Suggested Further Listening: Clara Engel – Their Invisible Hands (2022), My Dying Bride – Evinta (2011), Emma Ruth Rundle – Marked for Death (2016)