Here’s the problem with critiquing programmatic music: any criticism levied at a piece or album can be explained away, by its adepts or its authors, as a failure to understand the external reference points, or their connection to the music.
As its title suggests, The Sinister Tarot is based on a Tarot cycle, a subject on which this author is entirely ignorant; an ignorance that undoubtedly hampers his comprehension of the album. However, it is clear that Deverills Nexion have created a work that is meant to be experienced as a series of separate but ultimately related images, therefore, “development” as traditionally conceived is not to be expected.
This would not in and of itself be a problem if the individual songs, or “images,” were compelling enough on their own, regardless of whether or not one is acquainted with the program. This, however, is most often not the case. Songs tend to begin by establishing a sonic template, as opposed to a theme, and then wander around it for a while before fading away. These sonorities, though varied, are usually not very interesting on their own, or at best mildly so, consisting mostly of cheap synth pads and aimless guitar playing. These are occasionally enriched by other typical elements of the dark ambient palette, such as chanted vocals and nature samples. The unsurprising nature of the sonic range would again not necessarily be a problem were it not approached in so uninspired, almost idly derivative and predictable way.
Burzum’s Hliðskjálf used a similar set-up, and an even smaller sonic palette, but it worked because it was driven by truly remarkable themes, a feat The Sinister Tarot cannot boast of. The few melodies that do appear are unexceptional, lead to very little, and are easily forgotten. The album’s lack of strong melodic direction ends up looking like a technique with which to hide a lack of content: place the texture at the forefront of the music and let things glide quietly by. This is often a problem with ambient music, in which it stylistically accepted, and almost expected, for melody to be given the backseat. But the best practitioners of this style have always managed to overcome this challenge by using the texture itself as a compositional device; as an element to be treated and developed with as much care as melody or harmony. This is how artists such as Tangerine Dream create works of profound stillness and yet, simultaneously, of gripping intensity. However, this is not the case here. In fact, after a few songs dissipate slowly, one after the other, the listener is left with the worst possible feeling for an art form, such as music, that exists in time: that nothing has actually happened.
On the rare occasion in which a song does not end exactly where it began the transition is often unsatisfactory. These few instances of minimal development, such as in “The geryne of Satan” and “A Deverills man at the Bladuds Head,” are a case of too little and too late; tension rises momentarily only to disappointingly stutter back into the album’s habitual plod. The Deverills Nexion are definitely capable of writing some beautiful raw material, as evidenced by Ere the dancers depart and Bestride a corpse with my face, but even these tracks seem to simply sit there without accomplishing much, fidgeting impatiently. These moments of beauty sadden this particular author, as they are testament to the project’s potential, which, alas, remains but a ripple in a puddle.