Guardian of Winter’s Gate by Hiemal (Review)

The prolific French producer has released some of the year’s best dark ambience.
Guardian of Winter's Gate - Hiemal

If you were to look at the design of Hiemal’s logo, and then the cover artwork for Guardian of Winter’s Gate with its grim colors and gothic typeface, and subsequently dismiss it as some sort of black metal release, that would be understandable. Understandable, but very wrong.

I haven’t made it all the way through the prolific French producer’s discography — they’ve released over 30 albums to date in 2018 alone — but I’ve yet to hear any blast beats, chaotic riffs, or demonic yowls. What I have heard, at least in the case of Guardian of Winter’s Gate, is some of the year’s best dark ambience.

Hiemal’s music isn’t good just because it’s dark and foreboding, with drifting atmospherics that conjure up visions of ancient ruins in the midst of an ominous, forlorn wasteland. Guardian of Winter’s Gate has all of that to spare and does bring such visions to mind. But Hiemal’s goal seems to be more than just overwhelming listeners with existential dread and unease. (Cold Meat Industry this most certainly is not.)

With three tracks ranging in length from 26 minutes to nearly an hour, Guardian of Winter’s Gate can be exhausting. But it’s also inviting and engaging. Consider the melancholy textures that flow throughout “At the Edge of the World — Winter’s Gate,” and become especially prominent towards the end. While it’s not uncommon for dark ambient artists to trade in sorrowful sounds, Hiemal’s use of them doesn’t fill the listener with despair and leave it at that. On the contrary, such sadness imbues the 32-minute song with a surprising warmth and intimacy, qualities that one doesn’t always associate with dark ambience.

As I said before, I’m still working through Hiemal’s considerable catalog (which is proving daunting since they basically release a new title every other week). And in the case of Guardian of Winter’s Gate, quantity does not undermine quality. This is a perfect album for contemplative late night listening sessions, especially during these colder months, when you want music that conveys the isolation and desolation of winter while still finding moments of solemn and somber beauty therein.

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