Covenant Breaks (?)
At this point, the seemingly unbreakable Covenant actually broke when Clas Nachmanson left the band in 2007. Whilst he was the ‘least musical’ of the three members, it was known that he had an important role to play in the internal chemistry of the trio. His replacement was Daniel Myer – as if he didn’t have enough projects (Haujobb, Destroid, won’t list them all). There would be a five year gap to the next Covenant album, although they continued to play live and debut new songs along the way.
Modern Ruin was finally released in 2011. By this point, we’d already heard the lead single Lightbringer. Not content with changing the core lineup, this song was a collaboration with then-ascending Swedish act Necro Facility (whatever happened to them?). The delicate synth stabs give way to a rock groove and the spoken, almost rapped vocals, with Eskil’s voice confined to the chorus. As a collaboration, it’s highly successful in achieving what really is a 50:50 mix of two quite different acts. However, picking a colab for a lead single also gives few clues as to the direction of the next album. It’s the least ‘Covenant’ song they’ve ever released.
The album itself has plenty to offer fans of the ‘core’ Covenant style. Judge of My Domain could have easily sat on either of the previous two albums with it’s rich walls of synth and use of vocal effects as a response to Eskil’s call. Get On utilised a high-pitched synth lead that gets quite proggy at one point. But the hidden gem (as it’s rarely played live and doesn’t feature much on online rankings) is Beat The Noise. Taking a loop that remind one of their better Sequencer-era track, adding a fanfare-like synth lead and then letting Eskil’s increasingly ‘dramatic’ vocal style loose, it’s pure ear candy for fans of Covenant at their most anthemic.
And I say this because if this album has a failing, is that elsewhere it simply gets too technical on an instrumental level. There’s nothing particularly ‘wrong’ with the rest of the tracks, indeed reviews issued at the time often waxed lyrical about the production here, the sonic texture there and the musicology somewhere else. But there’s something intangible missing from many of the songs. The Beauty and The Grace seemed destined to be the big introspective centrepiece, but despite an attractive chord progression and some surprising acoustic tones, there’s no sense of “greatness”. Maybe the songwriting has dropped off, certainly on a lyrical level there’s fewer memorable lines here that any time before. But when I first heard this, it was the first Covenant album since Europa where I genuinely felt things really could have been better.
Singles and Versions: A 2CD version exists with a bonus disc containing versions, mixes and samples of Covenant’s soundtrack contribution to “Wir sind die Nacht”. It’s an instrumental in the typical Covenant style – lay down an percussive loop and build on it. The various version could work well mixed into a more elitist (Ok, “upstairs at Slimelight”) style DJ set, but as a standalone piece, it doesn’t work as well once divorced from the film it was designed for.
There was only one single, the format now in decline, namely ‘Lightbringer’, which actually appeared a few months ahead of the album. Aside from the usual short-and-long-versions-of-the-original, there are three alternate version – one credited to each band member. None of these are essential, but it at least provides a useful assessment of each member’s contribution in the revised lineup. There’s also a remix of the not-yet-released “The Beauty and the Grace”, switching the focus of the tune from harmonics to percussion, and a rather minimalist exclusive track “Never Seems To End”.
A few years on and the Covenant breaks further – Joakim retires from the live band. Whilst this means little in terms of end results as he remains a writer and studio wizard whose talents were best utilized behind the scenes anyway, it still raises concerns about a band who’s best work came when the line-up was stable. Daniel Myer also backed out, at least temporarily, leaving Daniel Jonasson (of Dupont) and Andreas Catjar (of various small-scale projects) to fill the gaps. Yet there was no break in the band’s productivity. We only had to wait until 2013 for Leaving Babylon.
My first impression was the album had a very inviting feel, as if the line-up tweaks had resulted in new members bringing fresh sounds to the Covenant palette. Their melodic sense is certainly as strong here as anywhere. The opening title track serves as a suitable introduction to Prime Movers, a upbeat song with a trancey lead but otherwise in line with their 21st century hits. The real highlights of this album come in the second half, though. Ignorance & Bliss and Last Dance both really play the synth-atmospheric card strong, setting the Covenant rhythmic elements to a backdrop worthy of both 70s new age or the late 90s trance collective. Last Dance ended up being the lead (and sole) single release but it could easily have been Ignorance & Bliss.
The rest of the album has more of a curiosity interest. The use of a harpsichord sound on Thy Kingdom Come is big step for a band that simply doesn’t ‘do’ real-world, acoustic sounds. The Andreas Catjar-written I Walk Slow also breaks this maxim with various guitar noises. Even if these sounds were synthetically generated (they have been significantly processed at least), it’s an interesting development for the project, even if the songs underpinning them aren’t as memorable as they might have been.
Auto (Circulation) is the high-speed, 16-note bassline DJ beatmatchers choice, but it also exemplifies a problem with the album as a whole. Eskil’s vocals. Too often, he just doesn’t sound as ‘committed’ as he has on previous albums. Too often, I want him to stand up and really throw himself into the songs, but he seems to be playing safe too often. And it’s at this point that I get concerned that Covenant may fall into the “technically good” trap. Review bait for critics who are themselves electronic music producers, but no good for a big sing-along come stage time.
Singles and Versions: There is a 2CD version, but the second disc is just a 76-minute ambient thing called “Jag Är Fullständigt Tung” with spoken contributions from Swedish poet Helena Österlund. Of more interest to followers of her work than Covenant, the language barrier is impassable for me at least. Maybe I should be more thankful that the vast majority of Swedish bands write their songs in English?
The ‘Last Dance’ single release has the usual in-house “Version”, though this one does seem to remove most of what made the album take so good. There’s also a more radical rework from Modulate, which removes the “swirly bits” and successfully replaces them with a more direct, in-your-face rhythm ideally suited for club play. There’s also three exclusive tracks here, but these are all quite minimal, not exceptionally well developed and just seem to have been included to ensure all the new members get a writing credit.
Onto 2016’s The Blinding Dark. There have been no shortage of bands capturing the spirit of the declining state of the world of late, but on this occasion, even Covenant decided to get in on the music industry response to all the shitty things going on. They do make a meal of it, though. Of 11 tracks, you can discount the intro Fulwell, two Interludes and the drawn-out exit track Summon Your Spirit, which sounds like an unfinished Qntal outtake. The idea that they could cover Lee Hazlewood’s A Rider On A White Horse was also wildly optimistic. Despite a guest female vocal, it’s a turgid crawl through a song that really cannot be shoehorned into their overall sound.
This is a pity, as other parts of this album really recapture elements of Covenant at their best. I Close My Eyes is the nearest they’ve got to years to straight-ahead melancholic synthpop, and it works in a kind of “I wish they did this more often” way. The more menacing face of Covenant’s sound is still in evidence – Dies Irae is a slow, tense swipe at religion, their best downtempo track in many years. And there’s the obvious club hit in Sound Mirrors….all the ingredients that make a later-day Covenant floorfiller accompanied by a concise assessment of humanity circa 2016. There are other moments, but these three songs prop up the album – I just wish they’d written more like it!
Singles and Versions: The Metropolis version of the album has a completely different track order – frontloaded with the three best songs heard within the first four tracks. There’s also various limited editions with added CDEP or vinyl forming the ‘Psychonaut EP’. The tracklisting differs between each version but all are essentially experimental “jam session” outtakes. A couple of these are reasonably interesting as background music, mainly the ever-so-drawn-out harmonic progression of “Death of Identity”. However, I think I’ve long since established that these epic length deviations in synthetic indulgence aren’t really Covenant’s strongest play.
‘Sound Mirrors’ was released as a single ahead of the album. As well as the usual ‘version’ there are three remixes. Faderhead’s is a rather flat implementation of current EDM sound, whilst Daniel Myer’s is also surprisingly unadventurous by his standards. The most interesting mix is Izoloscope’s, attempting to bring in rhythmic noise elements, but stuttering too much before hitting a groove. There’s also the usual throwaway exclusive “In Theory”.
The most recent Covenant release was Fieldwork Exkursion – not a full-length album, but a 5-track EP where all Covenant members contribute compositions formed from found sounds and varied ideas. There’s a lot of concepts at play here – the opening instrumental Pantheon is quite spiritual in tone, which the closing two tracks tend towards ambient/experimental territory.
False Gods is Daniel Myer and guest GrabYourFace getting in-your-face, so it’s only All That Is Solid Melts Into Air that resembles Covenant in any form recognisable to their existing fanbase. However, the discontinuous beat and lyrics drawn from Marx and Shelley aren’t a combination of influences we’ve heard from them before. If this is where their next album is headed, it might be worth waiting for, or it might be a sign that’s they’re about to get lost in self-indulgent studio science – this EP is an each-way bet on that aspect. Come back in a year or two to find out….I’ll keep updating this as new material comes out.