Celestial Woods: a paradox of rich and lush yet icy and harsh atmospheric / post-black metal / ambient soundscape immersion

Raat, Celestial Woods, Italy, Flowing Downwards, Flow044, CD (2022)

Following after second album “Raison d’Etre”, released in late 2020, and a slew of EPs in 2021, third album “Celestial Woods” reveals Indian atmospheric / post-BM / dark ambient act Raat in a dark, more pessimistic mood. Based in New Delhi, sole member S R – who plays all instruments, performs all vocals and wrote the songs and most of the lyrics, with some snatched from 19th-century poet Percy Bysshe Shelley’s work – continues to search for meaning, direction and connection with others in an apparently hostile or indifferent universe where truth and reality are more fragile and elusive than we want to believe.

“Celestial Woods” is a mighty work with eight quite lengthy songs, the shortest being just over five minutes, of richly lush yet cold, harsh sprawling atmospheric BM with post-BM and shoegaze influences. The music has a stronger atmospheric BM feel than it does on “Raison d’Etre” and much of it is cold and inaccessible, though there are more radiant and upbeat moments and catchy pop tunes on songs like “Silver Sphere” and “Moonflower”. The combination of icy atmospheric BM with its harsh blizzard sounds and below-freezing ghost vocals with warm shimmery and even quite sunny post-BM elements, and unexpected poppy tunes, results in a very distinct and complex musical terrain where on each track we travellers are pelted with icy tremolo guitar rain and bashed by screaming banshee wailing, then soothed by brief episodes of sunshine ambience and occasional gorgeous guitar melodies in turns. It’s probably not a bad thing that the songs are long as navigating through this musical territory with its extremes takes a good deal of time to get used to!

Each track has something quite different to offer to listeners so whichever track is better than all the others comes down to personal choice. The blackgaze “Silver Sphere” with its beautiful middle instrumental passage of sparkling guitar melody and lively drumming that ends up falling into an icy abyss is an early highlight, and the following track “Einsamkeit” with its mix of weepy melodies and forbidding tremolo guitar buzz is very good too. Succeeding tracks keep tugging at your emotions and inner being with their mix of melancholy clean guitar melodies (that border a little on sounding country-western!), shrieky voices and continuously burning acid guitars, and you can feel exhausted after each and every song. Coming late in the album, “Moonflower” sounds very much like potential single material in spite of its 8-minute length and passages of dark sinister though clean guitar melodies in the middle part of the song.

I’ll admit that the album can be an endurance test to hear and I’m not sure whether to recommend that people should steel themselves for the more weepy and emotional moments or just keep their minds and hearts open to the beautiful musical vistas with all their contrasts and commonalities. All songs come over as emotional tug-of-war affairs which can be draining for some listeners and exhilarating for others. The production gives the music a lot of depth, revealing deep space that draw listeners far into Raat’s complex soundscape world. Lyrics, very much personal and on the stream-of-consciousness side, can be dense and confusing in their imagery and meaning though they are not dominant in the music and the vocals can be treated as an otherworldly and harsh element in the music.

What’s incredible for me is that a recording such as “Celestial Woods”, featuring well-crafted songs in an immersive and emotional hybrid style of atmospheric BM / post-BM / ambient, is the work of just one (albeit very talented) multi-instrumental artist living and working in a country very much on the outskirts of global heavy metal music and culture generally.