Russian quintet, Manfrea, started out as a black metal duo in 2014 but are now a different proposition altogether. The presence of co-vocalist, Anastasia Bilaya, opens up new possibilities that were not there before. Founding member, Christian Noir, knows he can draw upon her angelic harmonies and compositional skills to compliment his own vision for the band, and it’s one that dwells in the virgin snow and pitches its tent underneath frost-covered pines.
You’ll begin to wonder if Manfrea live in a permanent winter wonderland after listening to Noire. Like Wilderun, they conjure sights and smells of lonely habitats and enchanted woodlands, but they’re not afraid to allow digital technology into their haven. Opener, ‘Prelude’, starts with a synthwave hook and swishing keyboard notes before the gothic doom riffs takeover. The title suggests it’s a warm-up song for its successor, but this is an impressive composition with many layers and a prog metal flow, much like Scar of the Sun’s latest record. Listen to those dissonant guitars feeding off the crunchy down-picking notes – this is how you juxtapose two competing styles into one coherent piece.
Faint surprise might be your first reaction when you hear ‘Rituals’. Perhaps we can call it Paradise Lost meets Arcade Fire with dual vocals, but this does not do it justice. Christian Noir’s perfect harmony with Anastasia Bilaya’s melodic voice makes it an instant standout track, and one that continues to challenge your expectations as it progresses. Alt-rock merges with muscular black metal in the middle parts before they treat us to a pounding Machine Head riff in the middle eight. You’re still watching your breath freeze when they saunter through the emotive post-black metal terrain of ‘Obsession’. This one demonstrates the power of Christian Noir’s crushed windpipe vocals, but it’s a prowling drum beat that holds it together. Last year’s EP from Errant is a good comparison for the same nocturnal mood and brooding rhythms.
Only one thing tarnishes Noire throughout this enjoyable piece of progressive black metal – the guitar mix. The axemanship need to be louder and crunchier on the title track, which shows great promise in the way it combines Tiamat with the heavier side of Bring Me the Horizon. Turn up the amps, for God’s sake! The same thing stops ‘Quit’ from achieving its full potential as a melodic black metal piece with Moonspell undertones. You can’t fault the claustrophobic mood, but the guitars should not be background instruments in a song of this calibre.
Closing track, ‘Roses’, showcases Manfrea at their best with its overblown romantic gestures and melancholy textures living among the black metal. This could well be the future direction of the band, but they should not abandon the brave exploration of other genres, including the metalcore and gothic elements. These give Noire an invigorating feel, like the cold air blowing against your nostrils when you step out into an early autumn morning.
Clearly, Manfrea are not afraid to experiment, but they’re clever enough to stick to established musical structures when the songs demand purpose. This is a worthy sophomore effort from the Muscovites, yet it’s one they can better on their next release with a heavier guitar mix.
Release Date: 17/09/2021
Record Label: Self Released
Standout tracks: Prelude, Rituals, Superbia
Suggested Further Listening: Wilderun – Veil of Imagination (2019), Scar of the Sun – Inertia (2021), Return of the Soul – Digital Dream. Pt.1. Echoes of Thunder (2020)