I'm going to start this review off a little strangely, so bear with me. The music on Numenorean's album Home is very good. I urge you to stick around and hear me out on why I think so. That said, the band may have shot themselves in the collective foot here, because the album cover of Numenorean's Home is an abomination. (What you see above is the outer sleeve Season of Mist is covering the CD with.) You can skip the next two paragraphs of this review if you've made up your mind about this album art already, or if you just don't care.
I'm not going to get into the usual lengthy discussion of whether metal is supposed to be offensive or shocking. Metal can be whatever it wants to be. And we've certainly seen all manner of gross-out WTF-ery that most fans don't bat an eye at. But here's the difference with Home: The album cover is a real crime scene photo of the real, murdered body of a two-year-old girl. The victim is Kristen MacDonald, who, along with her pregnant mother and sister, were brutally murdered in 1970. Her father Jeffrey was convicted of these murders.
Now, you can head on over to Decibel magazine's interview to get the band's full explanation of the album's theme and why they picked this image. They describe the album as broadly covering childhood innocence lost, as we go through life seeking and failing to find true happiness, only reclaiming our innocence in death. This is fine fodder for black metal, but in that context, I'd argue the photo doesn't even make sense--this murdered girl experienced just a tiny piece of that lifelong arc. The stated concept is rife for thought-provoking images, but I think the band's chosen art direction fails to act as anything more than cheap shock value. I don't buy the "art shouldn't be easily digestible" line they give in that interview as a pre-emptive defense, because this art doesn't challenge our thoughts or worldview, unless your worldview is missing the idea that two-year-olds being stabbed dozens of times is anything other than tragic. But after all my verbiage, I'll let one of Decibel's commenters, T, sum it up much more concisely: "Great tracks, great band, fuck your album cover."
All that aside, the music itself? Compelling. The band falls into the general area of post-black metal, and you'll see a lot of reviews use Deafheaven and Alcest as touch points. Deafheaven is a fair reference, although I'd argue Alcest is not. There are bands out there that try to ape Alcest's ineffable, dream-like quality, but I don't think Numenorean is one of them. I hear more of a melodic DSBM vibe here, like Woods of Desolation. The sound of the vocals being just on the edge of breaking reinforces that feeling. Numenorean makes big, anthemic, yearning black metal, and of all the bands that are working with this, I think they're one of the best. They draw on the pure intensity that Deafheaven uses, but (and it pains me to say this as a Deafheaven fanboy) they excel at album writing, allowing tension and release without the use of annoying filler tracks that Deafheaven has come to favor.
"Home" opens up the album with a downright sunny-sounding riff and a push and pull throughout its length, dancing between quiet and loud. It's a tactic that can fail spectacularly if you're not careful, making for a grinding and repetitive listen, but they use it skillfully throughout not just this song, but the length of the album, and it gives the music a sense of compelling motion. The album almost rushes by, in spite of some over-ten-minute-long songs. Numenorean also manage to blend black metal and pop/alternative rock almost seamlessly. I'm a sucker for this kind of thing--how do you mix that sensibility with blast beats and tortured screams roiling over top? It's no mean feat, and Numenorean's take on it is one of the best I've heard.
As you'd expect, the album takes a darker turn as it progresses, matching the band's stated theme. "Thirst" has a darker, more "classic" black metal feel to it, and after a brief respite in "Shoreless," "Devour" rolls in with an even darker feel, mixing in some low growls and shouts in the vocal lines. "Laid Down" is appropriately both ferocious and elegaic, marking the end of the album and, metaphorically, life, quietly drifting away.
So I'm ultimately torn. I still buy physical releases when I really like the music or the packaging is particularly artful, and in this case, I have the former without the latter, and I won't be adding the actual CD to my collection. I’d never suggest banning something like this, but I don’t want the physical artifact in my life, either. I'll just pay for the bits and move the cover straight to the digital trash can. I can see this album sticking somewhere in my regular rotation because I love how the music transports me, but the cover photo is going to haunt me, but not in the way good art should. It's a brilliant album, and here's to hoping Numenorean can follow it up with something equally compelling, but without staining it with an abhorrent visual.