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Akercocke – Antichrist

Author: BD Joyce

Akercocke – Antichrist
  • Artist: Akercocke
  • Album: Antichrist
  • Year of Release: 2007
  • Country: UK
  • Label: Earache
  • Format: Jewelcase CD
  • Catalogue Number: MOSH347CDL

After four albums of increasingly progressive and free-wheeling death metal, Akercocke clearly felt that it was time to rein in the experimentation, and instead of continuing to expand their sound by incorporating additional outside influences into their increasingly diverse sound, the band apparently felt that the time was right to narrow the focus and deliver what is, at least by Akercocke’s standards, a fairly straightforward death metal album. Of course, straightforward death metal in the hands of Akercocke is still unfeasibly intricate and dynamic in comparison to the more atavistic elements of the genre, but it does mean, for the first time in their career, that the band take a step, if not exactly backwards, certainly sideways. In terms of the quality of the music itself, it is of course significantly better than functional – the band may be cruising in fourth gear, but they are running on an engine built by master craftsmen from the best available materials. For listeners such as myself, however, that had followed the band’s increasingly wild sound with enraptured interest, Antichrist cannot help but be tinged with a small amount of disappointment that Akercocke have not ventured further still into the unknown, instead preferring to revisit familiar vistas and well-trodden paths.

Setting aside the question of whether this is the Akercocke album I want it to be, and focussing instead on the Akercocke album it actually is reveals a core of molten death metal, contained within a succinct and streamlined package. The frivolities and fripperies of their third and fourth albums have been excised completely, and the psychedelic satanic warriors seem to have had the idealism and exoticism knocked out of them, responding with a taut set of muscular and largely memorable songs. The first track proper, following the de rigeur intro, is a perfect example of this. Exploding into life on the back of an extended tom fill that acts as a perfect tip of the hat to the master, Dave Lombardo, ‘Summon The Antichrist’ dissolves prime Floridian death metal into an already heady solvent of technical, but grooving Suffocation-style riffery, and the resulting compound is absolutely explosive. Vocalist Jason Mendonca pours his scornful vocals across the band’s hellish soundtrack, and once again Akercocke demonstrate their mastery of the form, successfully blending vicious aggression with unforgettable hooks, and viscous, chunky rhythmic motifs in a way that is simply beyond the reach of most bands. Where Choronzon or Words That Go Unspoken, Deeds That Go Undone might have used this foundation to build new worlds of progressive metal though, their tendrils reaching out to pull in sounds and tones from more esoteric sources, this track (and the majority of its counterparts across the rest of the album) is a fairly linear journey, the usual twists and turns confined to some fiddly Absu-inspired riffing working in contrast with an unusually rudimentary drum pattern, and a brief foray into the kind of haunting atmospherics that offer a slightly nostalgic throwback to the spectacular days that gave us their career-best The Goat Of Mendes. As undeniably exhilarating as this more sleek incarnation of Akercocke is, it is difficult to avoid posing the question of whether, in casting off the experimentation, something essential has been lost from the core of the band?

This is a question that I return to throughout Antichrist, a loose thread that I can’t help absentmindedly playing with, despite the attendant ever-present and irreversible risk that pulling it too hard could destroy the entire structure. The case for the defence rests on a clutch of tracks that, simply put, are unimpeachable Akercocke classics, and spectacular additions to a back catalogue that needs little burnishing. The first of these is the magnificent ‘Axiom’ which would be a fine candidate were one required to select a single track from the band’s discography which most effectively encompasses all dimensions of the band’s wide-ranging sound. Akercocke’s metallic credentials have never been in question, but were a particularly dim-witted listener to challenge them, the punchy, galloping thrash riff that surges into life in a flurry of legato runs and pinch harmonics part way through the track would be the perfect riposte. As ever though, part of the impact of such a thrilling riff is the contrast that it draws in comparison with that which precedes it. Rarely a band to simply put their pedal to the metal in a heads down race to the end, ‘Axiom’ pulls the listener in via the intriguingly incongruous combination of pretty, clean guitar arpeggios and constantly rumbling double-bass work, courtesy as ever of the extremely proficient David Gray. A soaring vocal melody continues this juxtaposition, working against a churning post-metal chord sequence in a way that is obviously Akercockian, but simultaneously somehow novel for the band, before the aforementioned grin-inducing thrash sees the band move from 0-60mph in a fashion marginally quicker, but significantly more satanic than a high performance sports car. If this were not enough, the latter part of the song sees the band giving free rein to their predilection for squelchy electro and dissonant guitars, and this is augmented by an elastic bassline from new member Peter Benjamin. ‘Axiom’ welds clever composition to immense groove and feel in a way that cannot but satisfy even the seasoned Akercocke obsessive. Moreover, the lyrics also stake out a clear philosophical position that compliments the musical vision of the band, elegantly quoting Bertrand Russell with the lines “I believe that when I die I shall rot / And nothing of my ego shall survive”. One might mistakenly read nihilism into a statement that in fact opens up endless possibilities and removes limitations, urging humanity to maximise the pursuit of pleasure during the only life that we have.

Similarly inspiring is ‘The Dark Inside’, which experiments with a much more rough and ready sound than the progressive precision that Akercocke have become known for. The heavily rhythmic, almost mechanised d-beat of the verse is redolent of classic Ministry, spliced with an aggressive punk-metal feel that approximates Chaos A.D. era Sepultura, minus the tribal elements. The unstoppable forward momentum of the propulsive riffing suggests that the guitars are locked on to a track from which there is no escape; every note, every beat is as inexorable as it is powerful. As if to underscore this more animalistic approach, Mendonca’s vocals are some of the most feral that he has ever committed to tape, approaching the intensity of Blasphemy, or even Revenge, not bands that Akercocke typically belong in the same sentence as. Generally speaking, when Blasphemy are desecrating cemeteries in preparation for their nefarious rituals, Akercocke are more likely to be found reclining in the drawing room with a full-bodied Bordeaux, discussing Rimbaud and Flaubert, and it is gratifying here to observe Akercocke briefly allowing prominence to the beast that inhabits all of us, a beast that has perhaps been a little repressed of late. As they tend to at their best, Akercocke then move effortlessly from the bestial to the beautiful, as shimmering indie guitars and honeyed clean vocals transport us immediately into more tranquil climes, before the band return to their roots, unleashing a pulverising syncopated death metal riff of the kind that is positioned in the exact midpoint of the admittedly minimal distance between Morbid Angel and Slayer. The stampede becomes a lumbering lurch, the sound of an awoken giant learning to walk, before destroying everything in its path as the berserker metal of the earlier part of the track returns for a triumphant conclusion.

‘My Apterous Angel’ is further evidence of Akercocke’s mind-boggling versatility, and distinguishes itself with the most jaw-dropping segment of the entire record, a staggeringly clever instrumental section, as a brutal single note caveman riff is dramatically spun into a dissonant and considerably more complex version of the same progression, to ridiculously exciting effect. Were the entire album this dazzling in scope and execution, Antichrist would perhaps take The Goat Of Mendes‘s crown as the band’s greatest achievement. However, although the tracks which complete the album are well-performed death metal, they are not very much more than that, contenting themselves with replicating their influences, as opposed to transcending them. ‘Man Without Faith Or Trust’ demonstrates Akercocke’s enduring ability to compose memorably sinister death metal riffs, but offers little more than catchy brutality, and although ‘Footsteps Resound In An Empty Chapel’ improves on this in a dizzying technical blitzkrieg of prog-thrash, it’s difficult to avoid the nagging feeling that the band are breaking no new ground here. Where once every track promised to journey to unexplored realms, this time round they are returning to familiar destinations, albeit displaying the benefits of the intimate knowledge of the regular visitor, although the wide-eyed wonder of the first-time traveller is now lost. Even the atmospheric interludes feel like a somewhat lazy retread of the evocative sounds of Choronzon, and consequently cannot reach the heights that they ascend to on that album. Even the selection of the tracks covered on the special edition of Antichrist are somewhat obvious – Morbid Angel’s ‘Chapel Of Ghouls’ and the title-track from Death’s Leprosy. There is of course nothing wrong with paying tribute to your forbears, and I suppose it’s possible that these covers introduced some fans to these untouchable giants of the genre, but apart from some spooky synths added to the former, Akercocke play it disappointingly straight, delivering admirable but uninspiring versions of unimprovable songs. How much more interesting it might have been to hear them cover something from outside the genre, identifying and honouring a kindred spirit in ideology, if not in sound.

It is important to clarify in conclusion, that Antichrist is not a poor album. It is in fact an excellent piece of work that even at its most generic conceives and executes extreme metal at a level well beyond the abilities of the majority of death metal acts. However, for the first time in their discography, the only real surprise to be found here is the fact that there is very little surprising about Antichrist, and for a band as ambitious as Akercocke, this feels like the first retrograde step in a career that has hitherto only moved in one direction. Perhaps they felt like they had taken the experimentation as far as they could under the Akercocke banner, and it’s easy to understand the attraction and challenge of creating such a tight and concise statement after several albums of increasingly intricate and progressive music. Seen in this light, Antichrist is indeed successful – an easily digestible blast of pure Akercocke, each track reduced only to its most integral parts. Were this the first of their albums that I heard, it is easy to envisage the delight with which this listener would have embraced such an overwhelming display of death metal dominance. However, in light of the greater triumphs that came before Antichrist, it cannot help but marginally pale in comparison, the band scaling Kilimanjaro, having summited Everest previously. A harsh judgement certainly, but then Akercocke have earned the dubious right to be judged to a higher standard than lesser bands. Expectations were met, but this time, they were not exceeded.

Score: 82%

Alcest – Les Voyages De L’Âme

Author: BD Joyce

Alcest – Les Voyages De L’Âme
  • Artist: Alcest
  • Album: Les Voyages De L’Âme
  • Year of Release: 2012
  • Country: France
  • Label: Prophecy
  • Format: Jewelcase CD
  • Catalogue Number: PRO122-2

By the time that Alcest released their third album Les Voyages De L’Âme, their reputation was such that it was once of the most anticipated metal (or at the very least metal-adjacent) releases of 2012, their growing legion of fans impatient to discover whether Neige still hoarded any treasures yet to be revealed, or whether his wellspring of inspiration had run dry. The first indication that it would be the former was apparent even before the listener had heard a note, assuming that this book could be judged, at least in part, by the cover. One-time Alcest and Amesoeurs bandmate, general associate, and indeed Les Discrets mainman Fursy Teyssier is responsible for the artwork for the two records that precede this album in the band’s discography, but it is this, his final contribution to the band’s catalogue that stands tallest. A hazy image of an almost bashful peacock, the sun visible through the arch that the peacock stands before, a portal perhaps, to Neige’s fabled fairy land, is immaculately matched to the album’s musical content, the ideal representation of Alcest’s finely wrought, ethereal magic, and a promising portent of the quality of an album that immediately draws the listener across the threshold into Neige’s universe from the very first note picked.

One of the most impressive aspects of Alcest’s career is just how quickly they have established a sound that is so instantly recognisable, while at the same time slowly expanding their own reach. There are now numerous bands that have co-opted elements of what Alcest do into their own compositions, but Alcest themselves operate in such a singular niche that from the moment that Neige’s gentle arpeggio introduces ‘Autre Temps’, joining a soothing wash of synth euphony, it is clear that we could not be listening to any other band. The modern world fades away, and the listener is suspended in the amniotic comfort of the calming melodies and carefully arranged tonal choices of the band. Time slows down, experienced differently in Neige’s world, and the atmosphere is suffused with a sense that anything is possible, and all atoms are simply potential, waiting to be released. The almost folky timbre dissipates as a pretty chord sequence joins the carefully picked guitars, and the unobtrusive rhythm section feels its way into the song, before Neige’s plaintive, but more obviously confident voice details a meandering melody that occupies the space between the instruments with expert precision. Immediately, an increased level of considered sophistication is apparent in the band’s arrangements, as the production allows the vocals to become a focal point in a way that Neige has been reluctant permit previously. This is also demonstrated by the sprinkling of small moments of inspiration throughout the track, all of which enable it to transcend the conventional pop-song structure. The twinkling lead guitar line that appears just once after the first chorus, for example, or the ascending tremolo that adds intensity before the final chorus and demonstrates the kind of sure grasp of drama and dynamics that can only be the result of hours of hard work meeting the lessons of experience. As a statement of intent, if it doesn’t quite match the title track of the previous album, any difference in quality is vanishingly small.

For a band as dependent on feel and ambience as Alcest are, one of the most critical attributes is the skill to keep the listener firmly ensconced in the other-worldy miasma of their music, and thankfully there is not a single note that isn’t calibrated to do exactly this throughout the full running time of Les Voyages De L’Âme. Other bands can perhaps direct an ironic wink at the dirty business of rock ‘n’ roll, the listener and band fully aware that they are working together to suspend disbelief while at the same time acknowledging and embracing the inherent ridiculousness of this particular artistic form. From Kiss through to Immortal, via Motörhead and The Ramones, this approach is a time-honoured strand of musical tradition that will continue to gain adherents for ever more. For a band such as Alcest, however, it is imperative that they avoid breaking the spell that holds the listener in their thrall, and therefore the only viable way forward is to play it ramrod straight and deadly serious. If the price of this may be a slight lack of variation, the pay-off is pure escapism for as long as the album lasts. More so than than on Écailles De Lune though, there is variation there if one searches for it, and these elements are some of the most satisfying to be found on the album. The quasi-black metal blasting of ‘Là Où Naissent Les Couleurs Nouvelles’ again emphases the band’s connection to their more extreme roots, although Alcest offer a blissful blanket of snow, as opposed to the blizzards conjured by the more frostbitten purveyors of the more orthodox iteration of the genre. Equally as intriguing is the way in which the band switch in the latter part of the track between minor and major keys, generating an ecstatic conclusion to the track that emerges cautiously from a delightfully delicate bridge section, as if observing a spider building its web in the slowly rising sun, rays glinting off drops of the water vapour that condenses on each spindly strand of silk, before towering guitars bring the track to a majestic climax.

Even more fascinating is the magnificent and aptly named ‘Beings Of Light’. Liberated completely from any lingering connection to such fripperies as verses and choruses, Neige instead creates a bewitching track from little more than two, admittedly blissful, chords. The exact midpoint between the aggression and velocity of black metal, and the lush ambience of shoegaze, the track somehow synergises the power of both, becoming something startling and novel. In Roman folklore, Lucifer was the morning star, the bringer of light. The Christian idea of Lucifer characterises him as an angel, cast out from heaven. ‘Beings Of Light’ seems to embody a combination of the both Luciferian concepts, an angelic choir of voices acting as a beautifully carved Trojan horse for Neige’s seductive and extravagant melodicism. Not for the first time, it seems that Alcest are channelling the sound of the ether, tapping into something that always exists, waiting simply for a vessel to make itself heard. On this track, Alcest are that vessel.

To complete a beguiling journey, at the third time of asking, Alcest finally rectify the most obvious and glaring flaw of their previous efforts, this flaw being a strange aversion to concluding an album with a definitive and climactic statement. This is especially egregious for a band whose music centres around the post-metal convention of slowly building to a crescendo, funnelling the slow-moving waters of gratification into their musical dam, until the barrier’s structural integrity is finally overwhelmed by the onrushing flood of noise and emotion. Perhaps a lingering contrarianism has contributed to the consecutive anti-climaxes that have afflicted their career thus far, but on Les Voyages De L’Âme, Alcest finally allow themselves to be lead wilfully into temptation, and the only logical response is to assume a supplicatory position in recognition of the gifts that they magnanimously bestow upon the grateful listener. ‘Summer’s Glory’ is certainly the best track on this album, and may still be the best track that the band have released across their six releases, a gold-plated example of everything that Alcest do well, with every aspect of their sound optimised for maximal impact. Lulling us into a false sense of security initially, with what appears to be a prosaic indie-leaning chord progression, Neige’s ululating moan floating above the fray, the song becomes insidiously darker and heavier as it continues, until finally a spark of genius blazes into life for the final few minutes of the album. A crystalline lead guitar melody teases and tantalises, working through a number of slightly varied iterations, each repeat threatening to unleash the final version, celestial rays peaking through gradually parting clouds until finally the sky clears and we are bathed in the heavenly light of the enchanting, goosebump-inducing climax; Neige’s shoegaze guitar heroism a hipster inversion of Slash manhandling his Les Paul on the mountaintop at the end of ‘November Rain’. As the final notes drift away, and we find ourselves return once more to reality, the memory of the staggeringly infectious melody from ‘Summer’s Glory’ continues to reverberate into our world from wherever it originated.

Les Voyages De L’Âme is the most cohesive and fully-formed album that Alcest have put their name to at this point in their career. A transaction has been completed in which the band have exchanged a small amount of the ineffable magic that made their previous album so unique for a sheen of professionalism and songwriting sophistication, which continues to sustain their continually evolving career to this day. A tiny amount of realism, maturity even, has crept into Neige’s hitherto innocent universe. Together with a more dramatic sense of light and shade, and the ability to utilise a bigger toolbox to shape a less predictable landscape, Alcest have a greater sense of purpose than ever before, and the confidence to turn a majestic vision into reality. The band’s third album may not quite impart the pure wonder of its predecessor, and in that sense it is not quite as wondrous, but it is in all respects the album that Alcest needed to make and continues to impress nearly a decade after it cast its first spell.

Score: 85%

Alcest – Écailles De Lune

Author: BD Joyce

Alcest – Écailles De Lune
  • Artist: Alcest
  • Album: Écailles De Lune
  • Year of Release: 2010
  • Country: France
  • Label: Prophecy
  • Format: Jewelcase CD
  • Catalogue Number: PRO 106

Alcest burst onto the 21st century metal scene with the ground-breaking, but inconsistent Souvenirs d’Un Autre Monde. Although it was far from perfect, there was more than enough promise inherent in a sound which grafted shoegaze and post-rock sounds on to a nominally black metal framework (even if it was at times difficult or even impossible to detect) to suggest that Alcest were a band with enormous potential. Écailles De Lune marks their transition from a band with huge potential into one of the modern heavy music scene’s most beloved and interesting bands, accentuating and enhancing all of the best elements of its predecessor, as well as improving their overall sound with a beefed up production, a keener sense of dynamics, and quite simply, better songs. One can make a convincing argument in favour of a couple of the albums that the band have released since Écailles De Lune being even better and more sophisticated pieces of work, but on the other hand, for many listeners this album retains a certain impossible to replicate magic that will forever place it at the pinnacle of the Alcest discography.

The enormous impact of this album is, to a large degree, due to the incredible one-two punch of the epic opening title track. Split into two parts, and taking up nearly half of the overall run-time of the album, it is utterly entrancing, and immediately creates a totally immersive and other-worldy experience. Like its predecessor, Écailles De Lune is comprised of a relatively slight six tracks, one of which is a short instrumental, but the similarities are only superficial. Although a similar approach on their debut meant that Souvenirs d’Un Autre Monde felt rather lightweight, even if its running time still exceeded Reign In Blood, and a clutch of other classic albums; this time, possibly because of a set of tracks that largely maintain a high level of quality throughout, Alcest deliver something that feels considerably more substantial, and more worthy of the full-length tag that the band have bestowed it with. Everything about Écailles De Lune suggests a band now brimming with confidence, safe in the knowledge that they have the tools to fully recreate Neige’s vision, and the total conviction that pervades every single beat of the album allows the listener to cast aside any lingering misgivings and submerge themselves fully in the warm and comforting oasis of tranquillity that is the true sound of Alcest.

If the first iteration of Alcest sometimes represented a slightly uneasy union between the constituent parts of the band’s sound, this uneasiness has now totally dissipated, leaving only the fully-formed sound of blackgaze. On the evidence of the spectacular title tracks, no longer are disparate threads being visibly wound together, and instead the band produce a single strand of something altogether distinct. Finally, it seems that all parts of the band are pulling in the same direction – a floating guitar line that decorates the first section of ‘Part 1’, which could be from the first Interpol album, is virtually the only vestigial remnant of the jangly indie that their debut sometimes lapsed into, and instead, crunchier guitars work through heart-breakingly beautiful chord sequences, insistent melodies wrapping around Neige’s distinctive half-strummed, half-arpeggiated rhythm guitars, thick with plaintive longing, all the while clearly building to what will inevitably be a dynamic climax. As a delicately-picked melody finally breaks, like waves on a desolate shore, into an unforgettable tremolo riff, it is as if Alcest instantly come of age, growing into adulthood before our eyes. The tonality and harmony is strongly reminiscent of the kind of pastoral black metal pedalled by Winterfylleth, particularly when the harsher black metal vocals join the crashing guitars and drums, and the infectious melodies bring the timeless folk sensibilities of Kveldssanger-era Ulver into the enchanted woods in which Alcest’s music surely dwells. As the track gradually ebbs away, the tide once again leaves the shores bare, the ocean taking with it any doubts that may still have existed with respect to the band’s aspiration to combine the extreme sounds of their formative years with the languorous beauty of shoegaze. The second half of the title track progresses more rapidly from its woozy, dreamlike opening to strident, ultra-melodic black metal, Neige’s best Varg Vikernes impression uncharacteristically prominent in a clear mix. Chiming leads, cleverly treated with delay and utilising Eastern modes in a way that the band will explore further on Kodama later in their career, opens another inviting dimension to the Alcest sound, and the end result is an opening salvo that touches greatness, and stands tall with a stature possibly still unmatched by anything else in the band’s excellent discography.

It is no surprise that the rest of the album cannot quite match the heights of its first third, and there is no shame in this. Thankfully though, the remaining tracks avoid the dramatic drop in quality that afflicted Souvenirs d’Un Autre Monde, to ensure that the listener remains captivated throughout the record’s entire duration. As if sensing that it is futile to attempt to improve upon the title track(s) with more of the same, ‘Percées De Lumière’ instead channels the kind of goth / post-punk of early Sisters Of Mercy, before overlaying swirling atmospherics, together with deft guitars redolent of the peerless inventiveness of Johnny Marr’s guitar work in The Smiths, with Morrissey’s atonal honk thankfully replaced by Neige’s high-pitched screech. What could be an incongruous juxtaposition of sounds just about hangs together cohesively, the songs ambiguity perfectly symbolising Neige’s shadowy presence. If there is a criticism of the track, it is that it lacks the shape-shifting progression of Alcest at their best, at least until a sky-scraping final section which is nothing short of pure euphoria, almost religious in its sheer fervour, enough to convert the staunchest atheist were it adopted by a forward-thinking religious order. The addictive melodies build a path heavenwards, and it is almost impossible at this point not to follow the band wherever they may roam from here.

Leaving aside the inconsequential, but not actively irritating ambient track that effectively splits the album into two halves, the only element of this album that fails to attain the outstanding quality of its companions is final track ‘Sur L’Océan Couleur De Fer’. For a band whose music frequently builds, post-rock style, to heart-stopping climaxes of carefully hewn noise, Alcest’s inability, at least to this point in their career, to conclude an album on the kind of high that they effortlessly generate elsewhere is a curiosity. Perhaps it reflects a desire on the part of Neige to sidestep the obvious, and if that is indeed the case, one can admire the bloody-mindedness of his stance, if not the result of what in reality is an overly stubborn decision. However, despite the unfettered, latter-day Anathema prettiness of the painstakingly constructed conclusion to Écailles De Lune, which, like a songbird’s nest, gives the impression that the slightest breeze would bring the whole thing crashing down to Earth, it is nevertheless a downbeat and disappointing destination to an enthralling journey that promised, but never quite reached paradise. Things would have been improved immeasurably, if only Alcest had chosen the path of least resistance, and reversed the sequence of the final two tracks, such peaks does ‘Solar Song’ scale. As this track gradually looms into view, we find ourselves floating on a placid lake, gloriously free and untethered. Gorgeous, harmonised vocals take the lead here, counterpoint melodies building an orchestra of human voices, creating moments of unalloyed beauty. Gradually, soothing guitar melodies build, creating a luxurious song that demands to be wallowed in; less a collection of phrases joined together, and instead one single, long-form melody. It is exquisitely composed, arranged and performed.

It is a wonderful thing to behold a band developing, in real time, into the band that they had threatened to become, and on Alcest’s second album, that is exactly what we are fortunate enough to bear witness to. Écailles De Lune is a short album, but packed full of invention, beauty and magic. Alcest have continued to release fascinating music since its release, but even if one prefers their later work, it is difficult to argue against Écailles De Lune as the perfect representation of the sound that remains at the core of the band’s approach, the roots that feed their younger leaves and branches feeling their way into unclaimed spaces, but dependent on the life-giving power of their link to the ground beneath. The emotional connection with the listener is that much greater than previously, as if the lessons of the trial and error of their debut have been rigorously studied and applied to its follow-up, and a perfectly conceived vision is almost flawlessly executed, in a way that is both thrilling and satisfying. Just as Neige seeks to find a way to transport himself back to the Fairy Land that he claims to have experienced during his childhood, so the innocent wonders of this album ensure that the music within will never grow old, and this listener will not grow weary any time soon.

Score: 88%

Alcest – Souvenirs d’Un Autre Monde

Author: BD Joyce

Alcest – Souvenirs d’Un Autre Monde
  • Artist: Alcest
  • Album: Souvenirs d’Un Autre Monde
  • Year of Release: 2007
  • Country: France
  • Label: Prophecy
  • Format: Jewelcase CD
  • Catalogue Number: PRO090

The sound of Alcest’s debut album, Souvenirs d’Un Autre Monde, is familiar and even run of the mill these days, but this development is testament to the extensive and ongoing influence that the band (or perhaps more accurately Neige, the mastermind behind Alcest and their near neighbour, the short-lived Amesoeurs) have had on the contemporary metal scene. A fusion of black metal and the kind of shoegaze originally popularised by indie-leaning outfits such as Ride, Slowdive and My Bloody Valentine now seems like a completely logical step in the development of extreme music, in the light of the mainstream success of kindred spirits Deafheaven’s Sunbather, as well as the more general incorporation of aspects of the shoegaze sound into the post-metal of Deftones, Mono and many more. This was certainly not the case, however, in the earlier part of this century. Black metal had by that stage of course already welcomed numerous outside influences into its counter-intuitively elastic parameters, despite the protestations of the corpse-painted minority who curse any kind of deviation from 1990s orthodoxy, but even some of the most open-minded genre-hoppers might have baulked at this particular union. Until, that is, they heard the glorious results.

In truth, although elements of their debut are indeed glorious, we should also caution that it is clearly the work of a band finding their feet, and figuring out how to integrate the disparate and even inimical parts of their music into a cohesive whole. Alcest would find a more complete expression of their sound, and attain full glory, across their next two albums, on which they achieve an equilibrium that they do not quite manage on this patchy, but never less than intriguing effort. One should also be wary of overplaying the black metal component of their sound in the rush to acclaim the courage of their genre-breaking intentions. This is not to say that its presence is completely illusory, but that it is subtle enough for one to recognise that much of Alcest’s genuine credibility in extreme metal circles is derived from Neige’s association with, and involvement in, a raft of more overtly metallic bands, rather than because their own music resonates with aggressive black metal fury. It must be noted that these associations include historical membership of the very controversial (and quite possibly very racist) Peste Noire, although there is no suggestion or indication that Neige / Alcest share the political leanings of that particular band, and it would be unreasonable to allow what genuinely appears to be the poor decision-making of a naive teenager to taint the output of a band that do not have any connection to political extremism, lyrically, aesthetically or otherwise.

A far greater influence on the band’s sound is the constant drive on the part of Neige to recapture his childhood experiences of what he claims (apparently with total sincerity) to have been a voyage to an alternative world, populated by fairies, or magical beings of some sort. It’s easy to pour scorn on such supernatural encounters and the likelihood is that Neige has either invented them to generate intrigue and mystique, or (probably more likely, given his unstinting adherence to his narrative) previously entered some kind of hyper-real dreamstate, remembered so vividly and so impactfully that it is been retrospectively rationalised as a paranormal experience. Irrespective of the veracity of Neige’s claims, however, the stories provide a conceptual focus for Alcest, which enables their compositions to be centred around the sonic reconstruction of the far-flung lands visited, and offer a framework for a beguiling and evocative sound in which the band effectively provide the dots, and invite the keen listener to join them together, collectively building a world that hitherto existed only internally within Neige. The thematic thrust of Alcest, perhaps unconsciously, generates a set of rules for what can and cannot work under the banner of their name – shimmering, celestial soundscapes and androgynous, delicate vocals are very much the band’s primary mode of communication. Thunderous brutality, however, is entirely absent, even if Alcest occasionally adopt characteristics of the more extreme sound from which they emerged prior to their first full-length release. The album cover itself is a perfectly realised representation of the music contained within, and demonstrates Neige’s keen eye for imagery that matches the band’s overall aesthetic. The child that is the subject of the photo on the sleeve, looking in some respects like a refugee from Neverland, evoking feelings simultaneously feral and innocent, absent-mindedly plays with a reed or stalk, as if it were an instrument, suggesting a young Neige playing the music of the fairies that he consorted with in the Otherworld.

The album begins, as life on Earth itself does, in spring, with ‘Printemps Émeraude’. Where conventional black metal is the frostbitten sound of the end of all life, Souvenirs d’Un Autre Monde is instead the sound of renewal, of fertile and fecund growth, and of bucolic and rapturous reverie. And it has to be said, that belying the band’s background in the metal scene, there is very little about the opening track that qualifies as metal at all. The angular chord progression that commences the album, replete with chiming octaves and twinkling lead guitar melodies is more reminiscent of early 2000s indie, more Bloc Party than Blasphemy, more Interpol than Immortal. As the track progresses though, Alcest deftly begin to join the hitherto vast chasm lying between The Smiths and Sarcofago, with the drums maintaining an understated, but undeniable double-bass rumble, and although harmonically the note selection is very much at the pretty end of the beauty spectrum, it also approximates a black metal tremolo, albeit transplanted out of the grim and forbidding north, and into the verdant Mediterranean south. Brief snatches of metallic velocity, the washed out and trebly distortion of the guitars like a distant memory of Scandinavian black metal, reinforce these links, paired with Neige’s instantly recognisable winsome and angelic vocals, before the track breaks down into the kind of languid, watery loveliness that Smashing Pumpkins always dropped into so naturally in their imperial phase. In fact, Alcest at their best have a substantial amount in common with Billy Corgan’s troupe, fond of deploying heavy guitars, and operating in a space adjacent to metal, but just as often exploring calmer, more languorous sonics. There is enough going on in the track to avoid monotony – a couple of modulations in key see to it that the mood and tempo shift often enough to keep the listener’s attention, and as a clear statement of intent, it’s highly successful.

The rest of the first half of the album continues to build on the spiritually metal, but sonically shoegaze manoeuvres of the first track, each offering slight variations on a theme. The better of the two is ‘Les Iris’, which is a perfectly judged epic, adopting slightly more obviously metal chord voicings, a little more treble in the guitar tone, and something approaching a black metal blast. True to the overall vision of the band though, the blasting is less an aggressive display of dominant might, and more a warm cocoon of mesmerising sound, opening a portal to Neige’s ‘fairy land’, and sheltering the listener in a pastoral paradise of ethereal beauty. Coupled with the redemptive second half of the track, which utterly wrenches the blackest of hearts with its subtle and sophisticated melodicism, ‘Les Iris’ is utterly beguiling and fleshes out the blueprint for a sound that would become fully-formed on this album’s successor Écailles De Lune to spectacular effect. The title-track, which precedes it, is not quite as good, but it does feature the first stirrings of what remains one of the hallmarks of the Alcest sound – clean, twinkling guitars layering meandering melodies like a dusting of snow on a windswept chord progression, with Neige’s slightly distant, androgynous ululations transcending their occasional atonality to galvanise the song as a whole into what is now instantly recognisable as blackgaze, but at the time sounded extremely fresh and novel.

Were the second half of the album as good as the first, Souvenirs d’Un Autre Monde might be considered a minor classic, as opposed to the enjoyable beginnings of a band who would go on to bigger and better things, but the final triptych of tracks ranges from mediocre to downright tedious. ‘Ciel Errant’ in particular is an abomination, although in some respects it is actually rather revealing in terms of demonstrating just how skilled Alcest are to mostly succeed in weaving gold from raw materials that can so easily result in something bland and inoffensive. When Alcest get it right, their melodies provide shards of bittersweet beauty amid torrents of violence; too often here they are facile, cringeworthy, and more pedestrian than London’s busiest shopping street on Christmas Eve. The naysayers might argue that Alcest take black metal as a starting point, only to denude it of all danger, presenting instead a sterile imitation; the desiccated husk of what is left once all vitality has been extracted. It’s an accusation that is mostly unwarranted, but when the spell is broken as it is here, the listener can be forgiven for wondering if Alcest are any good at all. If this glimpse of Alcest without the sparkle of fairy dust that ordinarily elevates their music is unedifying, the final track ‘Tir Nan Og’ recovers some of the lost ground. Employing Celtic mythology to cement the links between Neige’s own experiences and more widely known legends of pre-Christian myth-making, the title apparently translates as ‘Land Of The Young’, describing an island paradise of everlasting youth and joy. Not obvious lyrical subject matter for metal-adjacent music perhaps, but from another perspective, one could argue that it is simply a less cynical and more innocent take on the classic metal obsession with fantasy-based subject matter, and therefore directly connected to metal genealogy in a way that is not immediately apparent from the music itself, which is almost entirely upbeat and holds none of even the lurking undercurrent of menace that stalks their best work. Despite this, and even though it is clearly overlong, it succeeds due to it’s immensely pretty melody, and ability to conjure the magical atmosphere missing from the middle section of the album, concluding a curious album in fitting style.

In the final analysis, Souvenirs d’Un Autre Monde is notable mostly for what it initiated, rather than what it actually is. By extruding and moulding something that is at least vaguely connected to black metal into shoegaze and post-rock shapes, Alcest provided the catalyst for a generation of bands to combine ethereal soundscapes and pastoral warmth, with some of the sonic characteristics of extreme metal. Furthermore, during the best moments of the album, almost all of which are found in the first three tracks, the combination sounds entirely natural, and even obvious. The effect on the extreme metal scene since the release of this album has been not unlike that caused by Isis in the wake of their monumental Oceanic album, which similarly fused post-rock with the apocalyptic sludge, the quieter parts every bit as compelling as the more visceral heavy sections, inspiring countless bands to introduce a greater sense of dynamics to their own febrile riffing. Blackgaze is now very much a sub-genre in its own right, and even bands that don’t fit neatly into this particular descriptive bracket such as Panopticon, or even Wayfarer, betray similar influences, bringing sounds from outside the genre into black metal in a way that would be more startling had Alcest not travelled the path that they have since their early releases. Purely on the basis of the music itself though, Souvenirs d’Un Autre Monde feels overall rather slight and a little ephemeral, passing through without leaving more than a faint trail for others to follow. There are certainly enough glimpses of the magic that would be more substantially realised on the following two albums to ensure that it is not unenjoyable, and it could be edited to an excellent EP, but evaluating the album as the full-length that the band consider it to be, Alcest are found wanting, even if the listener is found to be wanting more.

Score: 65%

Akhlys – Melinoë

Author: BD Joyce

Akhlys – Melinoë
  • Artist: Akhlys
  • Album: Melinoë
  • Year of Release: 2020
  • Country: USA
  • Label: Debemur Morti
  • Format: Digipak CD
  • Catalogue Number: DMP0194

Akhlys initially started as the a dark ambient project of Naas Alcameth of Aoratos, Nightbringer, and a number of other underground bands, but over the course of their short career, the black metal of his other bands has seeped, as if via some kind of sonic osmosis, into Akhlys. The result of this convergence of the various sides of Alcameth’s musical personalities is the nightmarish, but addictive, soundscapes of the band’s third record Melinoë. Paradoxically epic, and at the same time oddly concise, Melinoë is comprised of just four fairly lengthy tracks and a short instrumental interlude, but very much feels like a full length album, rather than the EP it could almost be classified as, due to the extreme emotional intensity that the album wrings from the band’s fascinating blend of sounds, which leaves the attentive listener feeling exhausted at the conclusion of closing track ‘Incubatio’. It’s an impressive achievement to create an album so immersive and involving, but which is brief enough to facilitate the repeat listens required to truly understand and appreciate the considerable breadth and scope of the Akhlys experience, given the general absence of metal’s more basic and easy pleasures (memorable riffs and choruses, for example) which would ordinarily generate the immediate attachment needed to stimulate the curiosity that drives the listener to return again and again to what is, after all, a punishing experience.

Everything about Melinoë seems deliberately calibrated to achieve maximum sonic devastation. The album is bifurcated by the aforementioned eerie ambient interlude, which provides a necessary pause for breath and momentary respite amidst the still smoking wreckage wrought by the relentless pummelling of the first two tracks, before Akhlys somehow ratchet up the intensity to even more eye-bleeding levels across the second half of this magnificent album. The blasting drums which open ‘Somniloquy’ sound a portentous fusillade, soon to be joined by a churning maelstrom of guitars, ostensibly constructing patterns that are recognisably black metal, but without clearly resembling the orthodox shapes of the kind of second wave riffing that to this day tends to be the most obvious signifier of the black metal sound. Instead, Akhlys play the kind of apocalyptic, psychedelic black metal that prioritises feeling and atmosphere over an adherence to traditional metal tropes, the kind of black metal whose most obvious adherents are bands such as Blut Aus Nord, Schammasch and Ruins Of Beverast, all bands who are responsible for making some of the most exciting extreme music of the 21st century. Clearly, Akhlys aspire to join the ranks of the modern day black metal greats, and on the evidence of their third record, their time is likely to come sooner rather than later. What really separates Akhlys from the chasing pack is their fascinating use of synth. Of course, keyboards and midi orchestrations are hardly a new feature of black metal – from the moment that Ihsahn plastered the majority of In The Nightside Eclipse with electronic augmentation and inspired a pantheon of symphonic black metal bands, not least the commercial behemoths of Dimmu Borgir and Cradle Of Filth, the instrument was here to stay, and for many bands has been a simple tool to add depth and harmonic complexity to what can be a monochrome form of metal (albeit sometimes intentionally and enjoyably so). Akhlys, however, use synth in a way that feels novel, and totally individual. As opposed to employing the kind of neo-classical flourishes favoured by many bands, or using synths to fill out the chords underpinning tremolo riffing in the guitars, Akhlys employ the kind of electro tones that one would more typically find in trance or techno, and which utterly dominate the tonal range of their music, essentially becoming the lead instrument. At times, the combination of the whirring percussion, understated guitars and day-glo keyboards is almost nauseatingly difficult to listen to, staying just the right side of grating noise, but its tractor beam effect unerringly draws the listener in, almost against one’s better judgement. The overall effect is unsettling, bringing a twisted carnivalesque dimension to their iteration of black metal, not unlike the sideshow symphonies of Arcturus, but considerably less arch and knowingly pretentious. It also has the function of furnishing the songs with oddly catchy melodies, amid a sound that would otherwise offer little in the way of hooks, setting simple slow motion motifs against the unstinting velocity of the rest of the instrumentation, all coming together into a sound that is complex, without being overly technical.

Akhlys’s gradually shape-shifting sound suggests something enormous gradually coming into view, a looming object of such scale that humanity itself, and everything it has yet achieved, feels transient and infinitesimal in comparison. The way in which the brilliant ‘Pnigalion’ gradually opens out into a perma-blasting epic feels like a continuous camera shot initially showing a what appears to be a substantial spacecraft against the backdrop of a rock face, only to slowly and incrementally pull back to reveal that the craft is shadowed by an almost inconceivably large celestial body, becoming tiny, and eventually disappearing, reminding us of the brevity of humanity’s entire existence when seen from a universal perspective. The drums are once against set to perma-blast, operating almost as a drone of background radiation or static, and the amorphous, sinister synth lines once again dominate the mix and drive the song forward until the tempo shifts downwards for a final few moments of stilness, calm, and even redemption before the inevitable assault begins once more. Brief snatches of ambient sound, the aimless communications of a lost civilisation perhaps, offer a small amount of breathing room, delaying the inexorable advance towards the inescapable black hole that Akhlys are piloting the listener towards.

Things come to a monumental conclusion with final track ‘Incubatio’, which is final proof, if indeed proof were needed, that Akhlys possess the ability to vary their mode of attack just enough to find new ways to intrigue, and to ensure that the initial thrill of their singular sound does not dissipate by the end of the record. After ‘Ephialtes’ does much the same thing as the first half of the album to similar effect, there is a danger that Akhlys would prove themselves a one-trick pony. A trick worthy of a master magician, admittedly, but a single trick all the same. ‘Incubatio’, however utilises the same basic formula as the rest of Melinoë, but imbues the output with a greater degree of grandiosity, forging an even stronger emotional connection than the other tracks manage to build. ‘Incubatio’ represents the inevitable final stages of the omni-directional interstellar traverse that the album as a whole has embodied, and consolidates all of the key elements of their sound, before, crucially, adding ever more layers of sound, progressively building a black metal masterpiece of stunning proportions. The track transports the scale of ambition of Burzum’s landmark Hvis Lyset Tar Oss into modern avant-garde black metal, bringing together the feel and spirit of the second wave with the broader range of influences and compositional techniques available to a metal band in the 2020s. It’s a sensational updating of the classic, hypnotic black metal template laid down in the mid-90s, and achieves the same kind of transcendental alchemy that so many of the classic records of that era resonate with. Synth lines meander and gradually coalesce until it appears that the full spectrum of audible frequencies is saturated with sound, until finally and cataclysmically, the universe Akhlys have created implodes, collapsing under the unbearable weight until suddenly nothing is left, only the vacuum of space remains.

Truthfully, this is not quite of the same quality as the canonical releases of the golden period cited above, although this is hardly a significant criticism, given the vanishingly small number of black metal releases that exist in the same tier of elite superiority. Akhlys do, however, absolutely succeed in delivering a highly cinematic and evocative release, which immediately positions the band at the forefront of the contemporary extreme music scene. Melinoë marks the arrival of a highly distinctive and utterly convincing take on black metal, composed and performed with appropriate gravitas and bug-eyed intensity. If black metal is a spiders web, gradually radiating outwards from the seminal first and second wave bands, contemporary iterations often seemingly disparate, but simultaneously connected to everything that came before by a strong, but imperceptible thread, Akhlys find themselves on the outer segment of this silken web, alongside a number of the most intriguing bands in metal. It will be fascinating to discover what patterns they are able to weave as they continue to develop, because as superb as Melinoë is, and as fully-formed a statement as it represents, one imagines that having set controls straight for the heart of the black hole this time round, if they are able to allow a small amount of light to permeate the darkness on their next album, almost anything is possible.

Score: 87%

Akercocke – Renaissance In Extremis

Author: BD Joyce

Akercocke – Renaissance In Extremis
  • Artist: Akercocke
  • Album: Renaissance In Extremis
  • Year of Release: 2017
  • Country: UK
  • Label: Peaceville
  • Format: Digipak CD
  • Catalogue Number: CDVILEF636

Despite their neverending and understandable popularity, a reunion is a tricky proposition for many bands. Metal’s capacity for nostalgia, and sometimes backwards-looking tendency means that the clamour for well-regarded bands to reunite rarely dissipates, and even increases over time. Max Cavalera and Andreas Kisser will never stop being asked about the prospect of bringing the ‘classic’ Sepultura line-up back together, even if the mostly mediocre output of both men since the mid-90s suggests that it would be unlikely that they would produce anything even approaching the godlike brilliance of Beneath The Remains or Arise. Similarly, a Pantera reboot would in all likelihood be hugely popular, despite the fact that 50% of the band, and probably the most integral 50%, are sadly no longer drawing breath. While a sub-section of their fanbase might be caught up in debating the validity of any claim to the name on the part of Philip Anselmo and whatever posse of hired hands he deigned to employ, the band themselves would be surveying such conversation from the upper reaches of festival line-ups across the globe. Translating a live reunion into new music is even more difficult, with perhaps only Celtic Frost, Cirith Ungol and Autopsy springing readily to mind as unqualified successes in recent years. The potential pitfalls of recording new music after a significant hiatus are legion, and even allowing for the initial excitement generated by the return of a classic band, many acts fall into a spiral of diminishing returns, even if the music itself stands up to scrutiny, as seems to be the case for the likes of At The Gates and Death Angel, to name just two of many bands that have reformed this century. Too slavishly following a template set down years or decades before runs the risk of a band becoming their own glorified tribute act, while failing to recapture the magic that was originally created by a certain set of circumstances that can no longer exist. Conversely, wholesale sonic revolution may be successful, and position a band as more relevant in relation to current trends, but it is more liable to alienate the very people that have been pinning their hopes on the reformation in the first place, as well as, in the eyes of some, tainting a legacy, or at the very least painting it in a different light. There is a reason why Emperor have been playing live for a decade since their original disbandment without venturing into the studio and, while this is an option for the truly legendary, when it comes to bands in Akercocke’s position in the metal hierarchy, there is little chance of living off the proceeds of festival appearances alone. It is against this backdrop that, following their own reconciliation, they reconstituted themselves as both a live act and as one that once again would release new, original music, delivering Renaissance In Extremis as their olive branch to fans disappointed by their dissolution five years earlier.

Akercocke’s previous album Antichrist, which felt at the time like something of a full stop to their career, bearing in mind the tight and focussed nature of a set of songs that consolidated all elements of the band’s sound, while at the same time toning down some of the more expressive experimentalism, was released in 2007. The band fell into inactivity following the touring cycle, and ultimately went their separate ways in 2012, a break-up which eventually spawned the excellent Voices, whose sound bears much in common with Akercocke, even if thematically and aesthetically there are some clear differences. If Antichrist was a full stop, then Renaissance In Extremis is the start of a new chapter, and the possibly overly literal title is a fairly clear statement of intent, albeit one that the album doesn’t quite live up to. While it certainly is a renaissance of sorts, it’s not exactly the exercise in extremity that the band might want you to think it is. Particularly in comparison to their first two albums, which were genuinely extreme in almost every respect, elements of the record feel almost restrained, and certainly less over-powering than the blasting behemoth that made the dizzyingly intense Rape Of The Bastard Nazarene. Let us not exaggerate – Akercocke have not been transformed overnight into Coldplay, but there is something more mannered and calculating about their attack, even if it still contains many of the constituent parts of their historical sound. The wild decadence that once characterised their music, however, allowing them to give free rein to the feral and ferocious part of their personality is no longer present, perhaps now considered by the band as the folly of youth.

If Renaissance In Extremis can trace its DNA into the Akercocke genealogy, the album that it most clearly takes its cues from is their progressive death metal masterpiece, Words That Go Unspoken, Deeds That Go Undone. In some ways this is an enticing development – to this listener at least, that particular album was the perfect expansion of the Akercocke sound, retaining most of the fury and pulverising brutality of their earlier efforts, but also striking out unconstrained into intoxicating psychedelia, post-punk and dazzling technical prog-metal. It is also the most logical step that Akercocke could have taken at this point. Any attempt to in some way recapture and replicate the spirit and sound of the untrammelled ferocity of their debut would seem contrived, whilst pursuing something completely unconnected to their original wellspring of inspiration would call into question the reason for reviving the band in the first place. This connection to the band’s fourth album is obvious right from the spidery opening to the lead-off track ‘Disappear’, before it drops into the thrash-oriented gallop that forms the core sound of much of the record. A brief foray into the kind of seasick dissonant harmonies that they used to specialise in re-animates the corpse of millennial Akercocke, before the latter part of the track alternates between the kind of delicate post-metal that has now infiltrated most sub-genres of metal since Akercocke originally went their separate ways, and the kind of acrobatic guitar work that is more familiar territory for the band. At times, the dextrous twin leads elevate the track to majestic heights, and it is truly a thrill to hear Akercock back in action, but re-tooled in a way that ensures that they remain in at least touching distance of relevance, if indeed that is a concept of any real importance.

As we continue through Renaissance In Extremis, it is apparent that sonically, Akercocke have opted for a much cleaner, and less cluttered production that they ever have before. Although this makes a certain amount of sense, given the increasing reliance on the melodic guitar leads as the driving force of their sound, as opposed to the twisted death metal riffing of old, it does mean that, at times, proceeding veer into slightly sterile territory, and the compelling and other-worldly atmospheres that made the band such a unique proposition are almost totally absent. This is not to say, of course, that there are not still sections of the album that make it an essential addition to the die-hard fan’s collection. ‘Familiar Ghosts’ is mostly magnificent and arranged in such a way that it represents a totally transporting journey for the listener. It’s no coincidence that the track contains probably the most effective use of synths on the album; an insidiously catchy melody gradually building a complex harmonic relationship with guitars that deploy shards of unresolved, hanging chords, while David Gray find new uses for his drum ‘n’ bass inflected drum patterns, before white-hot blasts of chromatic dissonance bring modern Akercocke firmly back into the black metal realm that they used to previously inhabit so easily. In a wonderful juxtaposition of old and new, the closing part of the song then constructs a redemptive and euphoric conclusion from the wreckage wrought by the mid-section, perhaps musically mirroring Jason Mendonca’s own well-publicised mental health struggles during the band’s hiatus. Similarly impressive is the splendid ‘One Chapter Ends For Another To Begin’, which shows that the band haven’t lost their touch when it comes to assimilating newer developments in extreme metal, mining a seam of beatific and uplifting shoegaze against a backdrop of relentless blasting. The song also sports a plaintive vocal, working its way around an elegant melody, and it coalesces into their take on the kind of sound that Alcest have brought into the mainstream of late. It works beautifully, a left turn and novel compositional approach for the band, but not so out of step with the rest of the album as to sound irritatingly incongruous.

The track which is probably the best representation example of Akercocke circa 2017, however, is also emblematic of the drawbacks of the return of this superb band. ‘A Final Glance Back Before Departing’ again takes the band’s now core sound of fairly linear death/thrash as a starting point, and overlays fluent and extravagant lead guitars in a way that balances effortless technical mastery with pounding metallic riffage. Thematically and vocally however, the break with the past is difficult to reconcile with the beast that Akercocke once were. I’ve written previously about the fact that part of the beauty of Akercocke has always been the fact that not only is their music outstanding, but that they were also aesthetically complete, emerging fully-formed with a debonair image, an erudite and somewhat arcane lyrical bent derived from fascinating literary sources, using instantly recognisable artwork to tie everything together, ensuring that a common thread runs throughout their back catalogue, despite the evolutionary leaps made from album to album. On this comeback record, however, and never more starkly than on this track, the veil is unceremoniously lifted, and Mendonca’s lyrics are far more personal, but also more rudimentary and generic, deprived of the idiom of esoteric Satanism that the band were once so proficient in employing. Presumably, the band might argue that along with the ditching of the suited and booted image, it was necessary to remove the facade that they previously operated behind, and that the listener is now confronted by the ‘real Akercocke’. In so easily casting aside some of the elements that were so crucial to the Akercocke mythos though, the spell is broken, and instead the band become just another very good progressive metal band. Where Mendonca once used imperious vocals to sing of “the senseless vanity of the Nazarene”, his now tremulous voice sings accusingly “Don’t be fooled / Because I walk and talk”. It is undoubtedly courageous and admirable to become publicly so vulnerable, and in another context, such lyrical content could succeed with its naked honesty, but for Akercocke, it comes to close to calling into question some of the most precious aspects of the core essence of the band, and this makes the track, and to a lesser extent the album a difficult listen.

The album ends strongly, and this is to its credit, with the penultimate track, ‘Inner Sanctum’, the strongest and most convincing song on the entire album. A concise torrent of technically adroit death metal, this blizzard of clever ideas incorporates a jaw-dropping instrumental passage that is as startlingly brilliant as anything the band have ever put their name to, augmenting an already superior song as a Caravaggio adorns a breath-taking Roman church. As the closing notes of the mostly excellent ‘A Particularly Cold September’ fades away, the listener finds themselves trying to resolve the perpetual conflict of the reunion album. It is of course pleasing to welcome back one of extreme metal’s most interesting and forward-thinking bands, and gratifyingly, they have returned with an album which holds its own in a changed musical landscape. Akercocke easily evade the kind of embarrassment that has afflicted many a band, and there is much to admire about their comeback. Conversely, there is no avoiding the fact that it is fundamentally not the transcendent experience that we are given to expect from a band of such talent and skill. It seem a little cruel, given Jason Mendonca’s aforementioned mental health battles, to criticise Renaissance In Extremis too severely. Its very existence is, in many ways, a triumph over adversity, and of course in no way diminishes the quality of everything that has come before it. However, in most of the respects that truly count, it ultimately pales in comparison to their monumental past works. Renaissance In Extremis is masterfully composed, well arranged, and impeccably performed, but the lack of the band’s trademark feral intensity means that it fails to make the kind of emotional connection that once came so easily, and instead exists as something to be admired from a position of detachment, a framed portrait in a fusty gallery. The unassailable self-confidence of the previous iteration of Akercocke has evaporated, and in their place a more diffident group, eminently capable of musical virtuosity, but lacking the singular and magnetic force of personality that once made them stand out so far from the crowd. Akercocke are an excellent progressive metal band, and Renaissance In Extremis is a good progressive metal album. For now, that is probably enough, although it does mean that Akercocke are just another band, one of the pack, rather than the trailblazing leaders that they were. Once, Akercocke gleefully sang in praise of the damned. In evaluating their reunion, it is impossible not to damn them with with faint praise.

Score: 67%

Akercocke – Words That Go Unspoken, Deeds That Go Undone

Author: BD Joyce

Akercocke – Words That Go Unspoken, Deeds That Go Undone
  • Artist: Akercocke
  • Album: Words That Go Unspoken, Deeds That Go Undone
  • Year of Release: 2005
  • Country: UK
  • Label: Earache
  • Format: Jewelcase CD
  • Catalogue Number: MOSH 322CD

In a short space of time, Akercocke had emerged from the London extreme metal underground to become one of the most heralded bands in metal, with an already formidable back catalogue to bear comparison with any of their peers. Over three fearsome, and virtually flawless albums, Akercocke had given an object study in how to successfully develop a core sound, their ever-growing tentacles reaching into increasingly more eldritch depths, while never completely severing the connection to the heart of the creature (or hearts, if we are going to stretch the cephalopod metaphor to its limit). Their fourth album, Words That Go Unspoken, Deeds That Go Undone was, on release, considered something of left turn, the band apparently jumping headfirst into the prog-rock ocean. On reflection, however, this reputation perhaps says more about the conservatism of the metal scene in 2005, than it does about Akercocke’s evolving sonic choices. While it is undoubtedly a courageous album for an ostensibly death metal act to release, it is at all times recognisably the same band that made Choronzon, and even the most progressive moments of this record sound like nothing less than a completely natural extension of everything Akercocke have done to this point. If the previous three records were the assembly of a spacecraft, Words That Go Unspoken… is that same vehicle leaving the Earth’s atmosphere, crewed by the engineers that built it.

The incendiary opening track ‘Verdelet’ initially offers few clues to the more expansive sound of the album, contrasting strongly with its immediate predecessor by eschewing a lengthy introduction, in favour of launching straight into coruscating death metal, which remains an integral part of the band’s armoury throughout. The familiar dissonant, ringing arpeggios, something of an Akercocke trademark, make an early appearance. More unfamiliar though, is the cleaner, crisper mix, and sense of spaciousness offered both by the stripped back instrumentation and more conventional riffing style. Prior to this point in their career, Akercocke have generally favoured a dense, suffocating production, which has resulted in their music seeming uniquely claustrophobic, every guitar figure building patterns on top of the previous one, gradually constricting the life from the trapped, but mesmerised listener. On Words That Go Unspoken… it is as if these walls have suddenly disintegrated, and in its place is a sense of the infinite. Where no life once dwelled, wide open space now appears, the terrain offering fertile soil for fecund growth and new life. The other key difference from what has come before is the move away from the black metal atmospherics that have characterised and distinguished the band’s sound since their debut. Although the album does not avoid the use of synths, their function is more often utilised as a lead instrument, rather than cloaking their intense tremolo blasts in the gothic grandiosity of old. Intriguingly, what we are left with is an Akercocke that are still recognisably Akercocke, but also much more direct in their metallic attack.

The brilliant ‘Verdelet’ is emblematic of these changes, featuring all of the hyperactive tempo-shifts that the band have become known for, forever twisting death metal into seductive new shapes, but also hosting one of the most straightforward and grooving thrash riffs that Akercocke have ever committed to tape – the mid-section of the track is as downright anthemic and accessible as the band have ever been, and as a result, ‘Verdelet’ is almost indecently infectious. The fun doesn’t end there, however, and it’s the second half of the track which really showcases the wide-ranging appeal of this iteration of Akercocke. Picking up the Eastern tones that were utilised more tentatively on the previous record, on Words That Go Unspoken…, the band fully commit to the rich and enveloping synth-based opulence that makes an appearance following the aforementioned thrashing grooves. For a band that have generally favoured multi-part songs playing host to numerous abrupt changes of mood and cadence, it is truly satisfying to hear the band exploring a more post-metal feel, in which small motifs and themes are gradually developed, and pulled and pushed into different directions. If Akercocke were once a highly adept Victor Frankenstein, bolting their monster together from disparate parts, here it feels that they are instead gestating a new being, nerves, arteries and limbs gradually extending outwards, marrying the triumphant metal classicism of the spiralling leads that lead the song into the more familiar wind-tunnel riffing of old, and then on into monochrome grimness, working through chromatic black metal patterns, before finally resting on a progressive death metal conclusion, which finds mid-period Deicide playing Disintegration-era The Cure as if it were the most obvious thing in the world.

Leading off with a track that acknowledges no boundaries is a masterstroke of sequencing, as it allows Akercocke to roam into virtually any musical space for the remainder of the album’s duration without it appearing particularly outré, and it all serves to make Words That Go Unspoken… an utterly intoxicating album. This is not to say that Akercocke have abandoned their roots entirely, and ‘Eyes Of The Dawn’ even offers nostalgic fans something of a throwback to the ferocity of The Goat Of Mendes, but it is also undeniable that the most entrancing musical passages to be found on the record are more often than not those that bear the least resemblance to their previous work. Perhaps this is partially because although Akercocke have repeatedly demonstrated their ability to compose superior death metal, the quality of their first three albums perhaps dictates that continuing in this direction can only ever result in diminishing returns, as the startling nature of their take on the genre is lost amidst the now contempt-breeding familiarity of this sound. It is surely also a consequence of the fact that hearing a band as versatile as Akercocke providing their unique slant on a broader array of sounds is never likely to be less than intriguing, and when it is as resoundingly successful as it is here, the joy in the listener being jolted anew by a band that could easily be taken for granted provides the same kind of gratification obtained from their earlier records, but in a refreshingly different way.

The title track is most emblematic of the band’s new approach, containing only homeopathic traces of the band that made Rape Of The Bastard Nazarene. Tribal drums beat an opening tattoo, joined by meandering guitar figures, draped in roomy reverb, which gradually builds into classic metal guitar flourishes, not unlike the shades of 1980s metal that occasionally peak through the progressive metal of Ihsahn’s early solo albums. A little less like the Emperor mainman, this is the prelude to a thumping electro section verging on dubstep, which brings the digital side of the Akercocke sound to the fore with a greater degree of assurance than they have ever displayed, before a supremely arrogant Coroner-style tech-thrash riff obliterates any listener that remains unconvinced by Akercocke circa 2005. Sweeping clean guitars round out a majestic track, re-imagining the sound of Cynic’s Focus, minus the distinctive vocals of that particular album, and once again it seems that the band have effortlessly achieved the ingestion and seamless assimilation of almost the entire history of rock and metal, re-configuring a bewildering arsenal of lethal weapons into something entirely of their own, and it’s difficult to avoid being swept up in the sheer audacity of it all.

One could easily pick out almost any track other than the customary atmospheric interludes, themselves an irresistible call to pray at the altar of this mighty band, as a highlight, each one containing some nugget of triumphant majesty, or yet another alchemical combination of seemingly incompatible musical ingredients. Although Words That Go Unspoken… could not be said to be front-loaded, the tracks that, together with ‘Verdelet’, complete a stunning opening triple-whammy are rather special. ‘Seduced’ is a never-ending stream of dismembered ideas that all land as intended, initially combining black metal note selection with precise death metal riffing, as if Satyricon were covering Carcass, before channelling the major key hippie death metal of Lykathea Aflame to bafflingly successful effect, and even finding the time to resurrect the guitar-synths of Pestilence’s unfairly maligned Spheres for some ingenious lead guitar runs. ‘Shelter From The Sand’ tops this, with arguably Akercocke’s most epic track yet. The opening sections are the kind of dissonant death metal that has long characterised their sound, but the final third is a blissful blend of shimmering prog guitars, stark piano lines, and deft vocal melodies. Each fragile note is a sliver of beauty, like lone trees on a barren mountainside, and the band appear at once nakedly vulnerable in a way that they have never allowed themselves to be seen before. Commonly Akercocke’s music has been an ego-filled display of elite supremacy; ‘Shelter From The Sand’ transcends ego in favour of something more cosmically infinite, and less earthbound – spacegaze in place of shoegaze. Once again, we find Akercocke sonically prefiguring some of the extreme metal trends that have seen increased popularity in the 2010s and beyond, bringing together the kind of dreamy post-black metal of Alcest and Deafheaven and the sci-fi death metal of Blood Incantation and Cryptic Shift into a singular sonic brew, some years before these distinct takes on extreme metal solidified into the more focussed sub-genres that we see today. Elsewhere, penultimate track ‘The Penance’ feels almost like the culmination of everything that Akercocke have achieved thus far, perfectly packaged into a seamless display of magnificence. Within the first minute of the track, stuttering, off-kilter death metal has birthed spidery prog, which in turn gives way to chromatic, Marduk-style relentless black metal blasting, spliced with the grandiloquent melodicism of Opeth at their best, the frostbitten North intruding from a parallel dimension into warmth of the near East evoked by the Arabic-sounding intervals utilised in the track’s main melody. Few metal bands display this level of ambition, and fewer still have the skill to pull it off in the way that Akercocke do with insouciant ease.

Somewhat frustratingly, as they did on Choronzon, Akercocke choose to close the album in perplexing fashion, with ‘Lex Talionis’. Although there is something amusingly contrarian about their tendency to opt for the atmospheric comedown as the final track over the mounting epic of metallic might that they could so easily choose, it also leaves the listener with a sense of loss and slight disappointment, when the knowledge that the perfectly sequenced and fulfilling alternative is so close at hand. ‘Lex Talionis’ itself is an interesting track, the heat of North Africa and the Middle East palpably permeating the band’s lift of Black Sabbath’s ‘Spiral Architect’, creating an enticing and enveloping atmosphere, but it’s ultimately a desultory journey, travelling, but never arriving. While it would have worked perfectly as an interlude, after the all-conquering fury of ‘The Penance’, it is unavoidably anti-climactic. This should not unduly affect our evaluation of Words That Go Unspoken… as a whole though. Although not the complete departure that some would have us believe – at its heart, this is an Akercocke record that exists in a clear relation to the discography that preceded it – it is an album on which the band utilise the total freedom that their mastery of the metal genre affords them to produce an extravagant and progressive triumph. It’s not quite their best; that honour remains bestowed upon The Goat Of Mendes, but it is a vital addition to their catalogue that bears virtually endless repeated plays, and conclusively proves that artistic evolution and the expansion of an extreme metal band’s sound need not come at the price of the band’s soul, which remains resolutely intact.

Score: 90%

Akercocke – Choronzon

Author: BD Joyce

Akercocke – Choronzon
  • Artist: Akercocke
  • Album: Choronzon
  • Year of Release: 2003
  • Country: UK
  • Label: Earache
  • Format: Jewelcase CD
  • Catalogue Number: MOSH277CD

During the early part of the 21st century, along with Nile and Cryptopsy, Akercocke were one of a small number of bands releasing death metal which offered a fresh take on the genre, as opposed to simply gazing wide-eyed at the numerous classic releases spewed forth by the US and Sweden a decade previously, and then slavishly imitating the tones, but not the wondrous, alchemical magic of Left Hand Path, Blessed Are The Sick, and all the rest. This is not to criticise too harshly the bands whose aims are simply to emulate the sounds of their heroes, and keep the flame burning for certain iterations of the genre – there will always be a place for the kind of solid genre practitioners that fill out mid-afternoon festival line-ups, and the lower reaches of multi-band touring packages. Equally though, we must remember that much of the brilliance of the classic death metal giants was a consequence of the fact that these bands assimilated the traditional heavy metal and thrash that drew them into the extreme metal realm, and twisted it into new and exciting forms. If we still wish to discover the excitement of the novel and ingenious within death metal, it requires that bands continue to fuse their interpretation of the music of their forbears with a desire to conquer new territory, and in 2001 there were realistically precious few bands doing this, particularly in comparison to the black metal scene of the same period, which was going through a dazzlingly creative phase. At the turn of the century, bands such as Akercocke’s compatriots Anaal Nathrakh, and Norway’s Thorns, Dodheimsgard and Ved Buens Ende all birthed fascinating albums which were ostensibly black metal, despite the fact that they had relatively little in common with De Mysteriis Dom Sathanas, or In The Nightside Eclipse. Aside from the stellar music, it was this context that made Akercocke’s first two albums such essential listening, evoking the spirit of the classic death metal, but with a sound all of their own.

With the passing of time allowing us the benefit of placing Akercocke’s third album, Choronzon, in the wider context of their discography as a whole, it becomes clear that it is, in some ways, a transitional album for the band. This is not to say that it is in any way a misstep, or indicative of a drop in the calibre of their output, but it does seem to occupy the role of a connecting bridge between the intricate, but vicious extremity of their early years, which moved from the huge potential showcased on Rape Of The Bastard Nazarene, to the flourishing of this potential on its monumental follow-up The Goat Of Mendes, to the spectacular, but more refined, progressive metal of Words That Go Unspoken, Deeds That Go Undone. On the latter, despite the more free-wheeling nature of the material, Akercocke tread their path with total conviction and deep understanding of their position in the universe. On Choronzon however, the overriding impression is that they are attempting to find their way from one destination to another, but without a map, or clear idea of what the destination is, possessing only the hope that they will recognise it when they get there. Consequently, the album is all about the journey, and the inevitable detours that they pursue on the way, and thankfully it’s a voyage that is intriguing, experimental, and mostly full of magnificent metallic music.

Chorozon commences with a fairly lengthy horror sample, not unlike the kind of thing that one-time touring mates Mortician have made their trademark. Superficially, this appears to be Akercocke falling in line with a standard death metal trope, but in fact, rather more thought has gone into it than might be immediately obvious. Akercocke, despite their personal Satanic philosophy, which seems aligned to a LaVeyan form of irreligious Satanism, eschewing any kind of literal belief in the antichrist, their music is full of allusions to the many demonic forms in which a more Thelemic form of Satanism would suggest that evil can manifest itself. Choronzon itself is one such form, essentially described by Aleister Crowley (another mainstay of metal thematics) as a demon of chaos. The sample that precedes the opening track ‘Praise The Name Of Satan’ is taken from an episode of the seminal British horror serial ‘Hammer House of Horror’, the plot of which is based around an invocation of Choronzon, thereby linking in perfectly with both Akercocke’s own aesthetic of the decadent English gentleman, and the central theme of the album itself. Of course, once the sample concludes normal service is resumed, by which I mean that Akercocke treat the listener to a scorching epic, integrating virtually every facet of their far-reaching sound into a thrilling fire and brimstone concoction. Expertly utilising mysterious dissonance as always, the guitars conjure a series of unusual chord voicings, with Jason Mendonca’s black metal screech adding a frightening additional texture. Almost immediately, the aggression drops off, and creepy arpeggios underpin a synth backdrop, beneath which David Gray’s unfailingly accurate double-bass battery continues to rumble forwards, evoking the threatening menace of an entire division of tanks. Then, as if to demonstrate that they haven’t mellowed three albums into their career, a grim, icy blast reminds the listener that if Akercocke are nominally a death metal band, they are a death metal band that have the ability to adopt the speed and modality of prime Gorgoroth when the mood takes them. As satisfying as this all is, it is also largely what one would expect from Akercocke, even if the electronic element of their sound feels even more natural that it ever has before, and not the afterthought that it might be in the hands of a less capable band. The latter section of the track, however, sees the band take flight into spacy prog-goth realms, which exhilaratingly feels like the first tentative steps into the direction that they would commit themselves fully to, just a couple of short years later. Once again, we see an already mature band continuing to evolve before our very eyes.

Another part of this evolution sees Akercocke exploring the scales and tones of more Eastern-sounding music, expanding their palette to encompass their variation on the lush and sun-scorched sounds of North Africa and the Middle East. This is introduced via the brief interlude which transitions smoothly into ‘Leviathan’, one of the pivotal tracks on which the album as a whole turns. ‘Leviathan’ picks up the Eastern theme for the closing phase of the track, although it twists its way through a maze of dazzling motifs before it gets there. Initially, the vaguely danceable (and slightly dated) feel of the mid-tempo goth-metal feels like giant step towards the kind of accessibility that opens up the band to the kind of sell-out accusations that the underground enjoys throwing at any band that dares to periodically operate on any setting below white noise. The stabbing guitar figures and electronic thrum recall Pitchshifter’s stompy snarl, and the comparison continues to be apposite, as Akercocke again display their ability to seamlessly meld metallic riffing with David Gray’s interesting drum ‘n’ bass-influenced drum patterns. Fascinating stuff, but the track solidifies its status of one of the band’s most satisfying as a result of the lush psychedelic section which finally resolves the uneasy dissonance of the first few minutes in a lengthy and beguiling synth-based workout, which suggests a productive meeting of minds between Tool and The Cure, and utterly alters the complexion of the track. Finally, the warm, enveloping sounds of the aforementioned closing segment of a bewitching track conjure the kind of opulence that Opeth adopted so effectively on the most evocative tracks on Ghost Reveries. Not for the first time in their career, Akercocke have demonstrated the ability to conquer new territories and integrate a diverse array of sounds without the kind of clumsy incongruity that often afflicts similar attempts by lesser bands.

The experimentation with more laid back and melodic sounds continues throughout an album that is impossible to pin down – every time the listener feels that they have figured out where Akercocke are going, they abruptly introduce a new dimension to their sound, the 2-Dimensional map suddenly gaining a third dimension, and the perspective shifts accordingly. ‘Valley Of The Crucified’, for example, intrigues. An immersive gothic ballad, led by delightful synth melodies which bring a deep grandeur to the band’s sound, emphasising textures and deft harmonic interplay over churning tremolo riffing, and gradual development over the stop-start structures that the band usually favour. If this gives the impression that Akercocke are maturing just a little too much, the way in which the same track builds to a bestial slice of symphonic black metal shows that they have not moved on from the kind of extremity that made their name, but have simply learned how to accommodate some lighter shades within what was previously unremitting darkness. ‘Son Of The Morning’, towards the end of the album is another of the touchstone tracks previously mentioned. While Akercocke have always featured electronic sounds across their albums, generally in a subtle way, this track sees the band truly embrace this aspect of their personality, the buzzing electro providing a firm foundation for the vaulting vocal melodies of the verse. Potentially, the band could have opted to truly play against type here and maintain this sound for the full duration of the track, but the band’s restlessness means that it is not long before this streamlined version of Akercocke flourishes into a progressive metal masterpiece that operates primarily and uncharacteristically in a triumphant major key. The shimmering guitars, and dextrous riffing suggest an exciting update to Cynic’s early 90s sound, or even Jane’s Addiction discovering blastbeats. The whole thing is utterly majestic, and totally compelling.

It’s not all free-wheeling exploration, however. ‘Enraptured By Evil’ returns to out and out brutality, showcasing breathtaking velocity and pulverising death metal that perhaps surpasses anything that the band have ever recorded in the heaviness stakes. The endless variations of the band’s familiar whirring, gymnastic riffing style that develop the main themes of the track, are frankly mind-boggling in the precision of the execution, and as ever, Gray’s drum performance is a masterful blend of instrumental proficiency, power and feral intensity. Akercocke have an incredible gift for creating memorable hooks from complex rhythmic ideas, which prevents their intricate musical web from ever becoming too much of a triumph of technique above all else, and this is fully evident on this fantastic song. ‘Scapegoat’ and ‘Becoming The Adversary’ are also magnificent examples of the pure metallic fury that Akercocke are still capable of whipping up, when they are not recreating the Byzantine sounds of the ancient Middle East. The former sees the band substitute their usual preference for Altars Of Madness-era Morbid Angel for the more sickening lurch of the Blessed Are The Sick incarnation of that legendary act, before the band drop into an insanely infectious thrashing mid-section that is a total departure for them, before culminating in the kind of dizzying tech-death that Cannibal Corpse have been trafficking in for some time now. The latter covers a huge amount of ground, from pure Norsecore minor-key blasting to cosmic Mithras-like psychedelic death metal, and the fret-melting wizardry of the latter half of the track make it probably the highlight of the whole album.

‘Goddess Flesh’ brings Choronzon to an odd close, a synth-pop ballad built on a staccato string loop, which is in keeping with the ambience of the record, but something of an anti-climax after the white-hot pinnacle of ‘Becoming The Adversary’. This, however, should not cloud our judgement of what is another sublime album in the Akercocke discography. Once again, the band continue to mine a rich seam of blackened death metal, while simultaneously growing their sound into new areas in a way that feels like a perfectly natural extension of their core sound, as opposed to gauche trial and error. Their ability to generate all-pervasive and immersive soundscapes, while still dominating the competition with their superior metallic firepower is matched by Nile alone of that era. If there are flaws to be found in Choronzon, we should point to the fact that it is not quite as coherent an album as The Goat Of Mendes, and as such does not quite compel the listener’s unwavering attention with quite the same relentlessness. However, it also contains some of the band’s best work, and should most fairly be evaluated as a necessary step on the road to its mighty successor, which succeeds in pulling all of the wild threads of experimentation initially woven on Choronzon into a single cogent expression of progressive majesty. The destination is wondrous, but the journey there is also supremely enjoyable.

Score: 88%

Akercocke – The Goat Of Mendes

Author: BD Joyce

Akercocke – I’ll Get My Goat…
  • Artist: Akercocke
  • Album: The Goat Of Mendes
  • Year of Release: 2001
  • Country: UK
  • Label: Peaceville
  • Format: Jewelcase CD
  • Catalogue Number: CDVILE95/610952

Many a band has foundered in the face of following up a brilliant debut album of the kind that Akercocke had released in 1999, in the shape of Rape Of The Bastard Nazarene. Relatively speaking, bands have a lifetime to write a debut and almost no expectation or external pressure. Suddenly finding themselves at the forefront of cutting-edge extreme metal, with the eyes of a newly-formed fanbase on them, The Goat Of Mendes would very much determine whether the promise of their debut could be fulfilled, or whether they would simply become another band who burned like a match, brightly, but momentarily, before the fire is extinguished. The plethora of ideas contained on their debut, together with the hints of a greater musical versatility that they were unable to fully explore on the previous album certainly boded well for the future, and suggested that it was unlikely that they would run out of steam quickly. It takes only minutes for The Goat Of Mendes to confirm that this is indeed the case, and in fact the band’s second album exceeds its predecessor in all respects, building on already solid foundations to create a monument capable of comfortably weathering the corrosive passage of time.

As if to underscore the fact that The Goat Of Mendes very much takes everything that worked so brilliantly on the previous album to another level of sophistication and intensity, the opening track ‘Of Menstrual Blood And Semen’ commences in a way that is eerily reminiscent of ‘Hell’ from its predecessor, a maelstrom of painfully dissonant guitars quickly giving way to aggressive, speed-laden death metal, with their trademark schizophrenic, overlapping vocals trading deep guttural growls with higher-register black metal screams. And where Rape Of The Bastard Nazarene was marred, at least in part, by it’s weak production, there are no such misgivings this time round. The guitars retain their trebly, almost Morrisound crunch, the flashes of synth add sonic depth to what otherwise might feel a slightly dry mix, and most importantly for a band for whom complex rhythmic patterns are such an integral part of their sound, the drums are crisp and powerful, and now weaponised to the level that David Gray’s skilful contribution merits. The sheer energy and vitality of this (and virtually every other) track on the album is hugely invigorating, but there is much more to enjoy than merely the simplistic brutality of warp-speed tremolo riffing. Akercocke have a wonderful ability to ally the linear riffing of early-90s death metal (particularly Morbid Angel) with the kind of tension-filled unusual chord voicings of prime Godflesh, which lends a modern, almost urban feel to their metallic assault, and this is particularly apparent on this opener. The inchoate songwriting ability of the debut is allowed to fully flourish on The Goat Of Mendes too, and many of the best tracks are spectacular epics that contain numerous memorable sections, but move fluently from one section to another. After the frenetic start, ‘Of Menstrual Blood And Semen’ is the first such example, moving through a complex instrumental segment, which recalls Absu with its use of Eastern-sounding modes, before the guitars make way for a lascivious-sounding electronic section, Akercocke’s broad range of genre influences coming to the fore, before everything comes to a majestic conclusion after seven captivating minutes.

The Goat Of Mendes is rarely anything less than spellbinding, but its status as a modern-day extreme classic hinges on a trio of songs that are superficially quite similar in their utilisation of the band’s newly confident ability to deploy catchy clean vocal melodies, far outstripping some tentative steps in this direction on Akercocke’s debut release. Of course, the incorporation of clean vocals into the armoury of almost any extreme metal act has long been viewed by some as indicative of a craven shift into more commercially viable territory and therefore as a kind of betrayal of true metal values, but this kind of thinking is tedious and simple-minded. It is of course undeniable that Akercocke enjoyed greater success after the release of The Goat Of Mendes, and the more palatable nature of some of their tracks in a mainstream metal setting may indeed have had something to do with this, but just as likely is the simple fact that their first album had been acclaimed in such a way that a greater level of hype and anticipation for its follow-up would inevitably translate into sales, This was also greatly assisted by the fact that it was released by Peaceville, a significant and credible metal label with strong distribution. Additionally, it should also be stated that the antipathy towards clean vocals in metal is both laughable and hypocritical, given the line that can almost always be drawn from any extreme metal band back through thrash, NWOBHM and eventually to Black Sabbath, where clean melodic vocals are of course an integral part of the genesis of metal. Clean vocals are simply another colour to paint with, another texture that can be used to increase the number of possible paths that any given song can explore. Clearly, depending on a band’s core sound, there will be some paths that might remain perpetually off-limits – it’s difficult to imagine any parts of the back catalogues of Autopsy, Cannibal Corpse or Von being improved by contributions of an operatically-trained tenor. However, for a band as versatile as Akercocke, adding another string to the bow can only enhance what they do, and that is resolutely the case here.

The first of this trio of parallel universe hit singles is ‘A Skin For Dancing In’. The title alone, at once both alluringly salacious and primitively animalistic, is enough to draw in the listener, and the musical content more than matches its promise, a perfect aural creation of the decadent images of the nocturnal bacchanal that it evokes. This track runs virtually the entire gamut of the Akercocke sound, but as ever, the band’s ability to combine what should be disparate and incongruous elements into a single glorious whole prevents things from becoming in any way disjointed. The drum ‘n’ bass rhythms that have been hinted at previously are in full effect in the first section of the song, with the chunky understated guitars taking a back seat through the electronically-augmented verses, before what could be seen as the second movement sees the band blast for Satan as enthusiastically and ferociously as they ever have, frontman Jason Mendonca sinisterly intoning ‘Escape into the woods’, and adding to the atmosphere. From there, the song takes flight through a series of complex rhythmic changes, David Gray’s drumming once again propelling the band to new heights, and otherwordly guitar harmonies decorate the brutality of the riffing. Finally, the chorus releases all of the pent-up tension in a rush of gothic grandeur, lush synth instrumentation recalling the wave of late-90s melancholic metal, where it seemed that a small section of the scene discovered goth and prog simultaneously, resulting in the glorious, sweeping weirdness of bands such as Tiamat, …In The Woods, and Winds. Approximately five godlike riffs later, a song of quite outlandish brilliance comes to an end, and one imagines that they can’t possibly repeat the trick once more, having surely exhausted their well of ideas.

For many bands that would be the case, but Akercocke are not many bands. ‘Horns Of Baphomet’ is the sound of lightning striking twice, another multi-part epic this time operating in a slower, more stately tempo, Mendonca’s plaintive alto a suitable match for the sombre melodies of the chorus. ‘Horns Of Baphomet’ demonstrates the band’s growing ability to create beautifully layered music, with the subtle use of gossamer light acoustic guitars blending almost imperceptibly with crunching arpeggios facilitating fluid transitions through the many dimensions of the track, before Akercocke show their ability to master death metal of a slow and grinding nature, as well as the blasting tremolo that tends to be their preference. ‘He Is Risen’ completes what feels like a trilogy of monstrous scale, again showcasing the band’s magnificent ability to combine complex and intricate death metal riffing, with dissonant chords, and black metal vocals and atmosphere. The horn-assisted pummelling blast that drives the song relentlessly towards its conclusion is possibly the high point of the entire record, standing as a testament to the manifestation of a grander vision than most bands can even aspire to, let alone realise.

Akercocke – The Goat Of Mendes

If the aforementioned tracks heralded the arrival of Akercocke as a world-class metal band that could stand comparison with any of their peers, this is not to imply that the rest of The Goat Of Mendes fails to impress. In fact, the album is remarkably consistent, and there are thrilling moments to be found throughout. ‘Masks Of God’ benefits from the record’s smart sequencing, surprising with intense, Suffocation-style technical death metal from the first beat, contrasting with the slightly more measured approach that the band tend to adopt to building a song ordinarily, and the groovy thrash feel that runs through much of the rest of the track uncharacteristically emphasises the rhythm guitars, at times even approaching the mechanised rattle of Fear Factory, before a pyrotechnic instrumental section brings us back to more familiar territory. Even the brief classical interlude of ‘Fortune My Foe’, a mournful piece of chamber music, is in keeping with the overall mood of the album, and skilfully serves to connect Akercocke’s music to something less obviously rooted in the 21st century, suggesting that they are able to tap into an ageless evil, in the same way that the classical guitar pieces on Black Sabbath’s Master Of Reality add an arcane mystique to the sound of another legendary British metal band.

Reinforcing the perfection of the album’s sequencing, it is hard to imagine The Goat Of Mendes concluding with any other track than ‘Ceremony Of Nine Angles’. Running to nearly nine minutes, the track is an almost unbearably intense epic that pushes the band’s bombastic ambition further than ever before. The tremolo blast is a common feature of the band’s sound, but the technicality and choice of notes tends to draw from classic death metal, rather than the kind of icy, minor key modes that characterise black metal. On this track, however, Akercocke dive headlong into black metal territory, attacking the opening riff with the kind of fevered mania of Impaled Nazarene, circa Tol Kormpt Norz Norz Norz…, gradually building to a symphonic climax that recalls Emperor or Abigor. The band truly slip the leash across the ferocious final minutes of the album, with Gray’s tom rolls going off like artillery rounds, and layered choral drones generating an overwhelming wave of sound that finally breaks as Mendonca is heard speaking a final incantation: ‘Thou art my master: Satan!’. The whole thing is nothing less than an ecstatic hymn to the power of the horned one, and displays the kind of awe and power that one imagines would satisfy him.

The Goat Of Mendes is nothing short of a monumental achievement. Deservedly hailed as such on its release, if anything, it has improved with age, so rarely has it been surpassed since, within its milieu at least. Frequently, one cannot help but feel that contemporary extreme metal albums sometimes opt for duration over quality, as if the mere passing of time denotes epic scale and scope, and what could have been an excellent 40 minute album instead becomes a 75 minute test of endurance. Akercocke’s second album, however, is a 60 minute album that is hugely grandiose, and yet feels like a tight, concise album of the type that Death or Deicide would have released in the halcyon days of classic death metal. Lengthy tracks fly by, primarily because of the strength of the material and the fluency of the composition, which ensures that what could seem cold and calculated in fact feels organic and (in)human. This album is a towering classic that fulfils the huge potential of Akercocke’s debut, in a disdainful display of metal might for the ages.

Score: 92%

Akercocke – Rape Of The Bastard Nazarene

Author: BD Joyce

Akercocke – Suits You Sir!
  • Artist: Akercocke
  • Album: Rape Of The Bastard Nazarene
  • Year of Release: 1999
  • Country: UK
  • Label: Peaceville
  • Format: Digipack CD
  • Catalogue Number: CDVILED647

It’s difficult to overstate the impact that Akercocke made when they broke out of London’s underground extreme metal scene at the tail end of the 1990s. Although the UK had played a huge role firstly in the genesis of metal itself via Black Sabbath, Judas Priest and Iron Maiden, and Venom’s unholy racket had been one of the catalysts for the development of thrash and black metal in the early 1980s, outside of a fertile grind and death-doom scenes centred around Napalm Death, Carcass and Paradise Lost, the UK had been little more than a bit-part player in the global explosion of black metal and death metal emanating from the Scandinavian and American hotbeds. Cradle Of Filth, despite the polarising nature of their aesthetic, were the only British black metal band at that point that had successfully transcended their local scene, and despite the best efforts of a congested and incestuous London community, there were few bands that seemed especially likely to replicate Cradle Of Filth’s success, let alone challenge the best that Norway, Sweden or even the Netherlands had to offer at that time. So when Akercocke emerged, seemingly fully-formed, complete with striking sartorial choices and a high concept vision together with the ability to realise it, it was a stunning bolt from the blue, and they were almost immediately transformed into one of extreme metal’s most intriguing and forward-thinking bands. Rape Of The Bastard Nazarene is at once a statement of the band’s overt and seductively blasphemous Satanism, and a slightly (but only slightly) rough and ready template for a sound that they would perfect over a sequence of outstanding albums that would end only with their initial dissolution in 2012.

It would be a mistake to dismiss Akercocke’s first album on the basis that it is not yet the perfect realisation of their sound, however. While they would go on to make more impressive albums, their debut transcends its occasionally under-powered production with a succession of songs virtually over-flowing with enthralling ideas and impressive musicianship. Akercocke also succeed because, like many of metal’s most iconic bands (and perhaps contrary to the protestations of some fans who maintain that the music is the only thing that counts), they offer more than simply excellent music. First comes the name, and linked to this, the thematic conceit of their first album. In a scene stuffed to bursting with death metal bands referencing some kind of unpleasant bodily mutilation, and Tolkien and Norse mythology-obsessed black metal bands, the mysterious and esoteric name of Akercocke, not unlike their British contemporaries Anaal Nathrakh, was impossible to forget once heard. This moniker gains an additional layer of interest when one learns that the name was taken from Robert Nye’s re-telling of the Faust mythos, specifically a capuchin monkey given to Faust through Satan himself. It also lends some depth to the band’s avowed Satanism, something far beyond the cartoonish facade of the many bands that have invoked the devil’s name and image through the years purely (and frequently successfully) to shock. Their spiritual beliefs bring a palpable authenticity to their music, and serve to enhance the genuinely disquieting atmosphere imparted by the songs themselves, and also the black mass-style interludes and invocations that are often utilised to bridge one song to another. Finally, the band’s aesthetic, encompassing their instantly recognisable monochrome artwork (generally featuring sexual images of women in various states of undress) as well as their be-suited onstage presence, demonstrates both a seriousness of intent and the creation of a totally immersive and coherent universe in which the band operate, and which the listener is able to completely lose themselves in.

Of course, all of this has function in complement to the music itself – if the songs failed to match the impressiveness of the concept, Akercocke would have been as dead in the water as any other style over substance band. Fortunately, this is resolutely not the case with Rape Of The Bastard Nazarene, and therefore all of the peripheral elements serve only to strengthen the whole edifice, an edifice that would be further reinforced by the albums that followed. As soon as ‘Hell’, the first track proper kicks in, following a suitably eerie chanted declaration which acts to prepare the listener for the upcoming assault, it is immediately clear that something startling and unprecedented is taking place. The band could so easily have launched into one of the many ripping riffs that populate the album, but instead prioritise atmosphere, by choosing to delay gratification, ‘Hell’ commencing with seething, demonic discordance, and almost whispered vocals. Once the crunching guitars do finally surge into action, the song continues through a whirlwind of ferocious tremolo riffing, complex tempo changes and intriguing rhythmic ideas. ‘Hell’ represents the infernal genesis of a riffing style that is highly individual and instantly recognisable. More often than not, Akercocke are ostensibly playing a slightly avant-garde version of death metal. The most aggressive tracks on this record generally combine snatches of single string tremolo blasts with lengthy passages of spidery, technical melodies, the twin guitars frequently alternating between unison sections, and segments in which they break into split harmonies that generally eschew classic metal intervals for something considerably more evil-sounding. The nearest comparison would be early Morbid Angel, or perhaps Nile at their most direct, although it should be noted that the trace elements of thrash that are so apparent on Altars Of Madness are almost entirely absent from Akercocke’s sound. What makes Akercocke so unique though, is the fact that they are clearly not just a death metal band. Philosophically, their Satanism places them much closer to orthodox black metal, and although musically the band share little in common with mid-90s Norsecore, the way in which they are able to imbue their music with a sense of awe and majesty allows them, in combination with a subtle use of synths, to straddle the death metal / black metal divide with skill. Finally, the progressive touches which will become significantly more pronounced as their discography is expanded is of a piece with a black metal scene that, as the 20th century drew to a close, was introducing a plethora of different sounds to the black metal template, resulting in the dramatic transformation of previously orthodox bands such as Enslaved, Dodheimsgard and Thorns into wildly progressive musical explorers.

As the album progresses, it’s clear that although all elements of the band’s sound may not be fully-realised in the way that they will be on The Goat Of Mendes, they are all discernible to varying degrees. When they all coalesce, as they do on early career highlight ‘Nadja’, or the monumental ‘Justine’, the results are astounding. ‘Nadja’ seamlessly welds a memorable Morbid Angel meets Beherit tremolo riff to some slick and dextrous lead playing, and overlays the whole with some truly vicious vocals. Another feature of the Akercocke sound is the clever use of contrasting vocal styles, which frequently overlap to create a disorienting feel, and ‘Nadja’ leans heavily on high-pitched screamed vocals to wonderfully unsettling effect. The complexity of the rhythmic interplay between David Gray’s outstanding drumming and the guitars, and the harmonic counterpoints that the guitars create completely belies the band’s naivety as a recording act, and frankly, the level of compositional sophistication displayed here put Akercocke at the forefront of a small number of death metal bands forging new paths for the genre in 1999. ‘Justine’ demonstrates a similar melodic intricacy, and the way in which this spellbinding track evolves from an introductory section in which the band give the impression that they are rising, undead, from eldritch depths, through a subtle electro section, Gray’s patterns mimicking the breakbeats of drum ‘n’ bass, before finally climaxing in an extended progressive death metal instrumental section is utterly unique. The hint of electronics on this track is a thread that runs through the album as a whole, and a tantalising glimpse of a set of influences that run rather deeper than the obvious metallic touchpoints. This thread is audible through the ghostly interlude ‘The Goat’, and ambient outro ‘The Blood’ and although the band use these sounds cautiously on Rape Of The Bastard Nazarene, they are well-integrated enough into the Akercocke sound that they do not feel jarring or incongruous.

In fact, nothing on this ambitious debut feels out of place, even if it does not all quite hit the heights of ‘Nadja’ and ‘Justine’. In ‘Zuleika’, Akercocke give us the only track on the album that feels like a demo-level recording. The somewhat stock riffs fail to take flight and inspire in the way that they do elsewhere, and overall the song lacks the distinct personality that ordinarily makes the band’s music so memorable. Despite this though, the slightly unclassifiable blackened death metal is reminiscent of such legendary oddities as Mystifier and Root, and thus helpfully serves to connect Akercocke with the more obscure reaches of the extreme metal underground, burnishing their metal credentials, and again displays a wide-range of less obvious influences. Additionally, although the strength of the material renders it a trivial problem, the production is inconsistent at best. While at no point is it poor enough to prevent the band’s many ideas from connecting with the listener, it would be of minimal surprise to discover that Gray’s drum parts were the recorded sound of him pounding wet cardboard, and although the drum patterns themselves are outstanding, they don’t quite drive the band forward with the taut energy that the songs deserve.

Akercocke – Rape Of The Bastard Nazarene

These criticisms are minor complaints though, which do little to diminish the enjoyment of a supremely confident debut. Akercocke play with the kind of dismissive arrogance that one should expect from devoted Satanists, and fortunately the quality of the material matches the intent of the delivery. Even in the early stages of their career, the band have a firm grasp on the art of channelling their vision into hook-laden songwriting, while keeping things interesting via continual tempo shifts, and subtle rhythmic changes. Their riffs and melodies are often breathtakingly intricate, but although the band impress with their technical proficiency, they also clearly recognise the value of dropping into a ferocious d-beat tremolo riff to allow the listener to bang as well as scratch their head; combining beauty with brutality to thrilling effect. In their more experimental moments, they are also able to generate captivating metal from less obvious ingredients. The droning, almost ritualistic discordance of ‘Marguerite & Gretchen’ sounds familiar now, in a modern black metal scene populated by the likes of The Ruins Of Beverast and Schammasch, but in 1999 this was hugely innovative and unconventional, and it has barely dated in the years that have followed, much like the vast majority of a masterful album. Akercocke would go on to make better records, but Rape Of The Bastard Nazarene retains the magick that it radiated on its release, and remains a landmark in extreme metal, as well as the first step in an endlessly impressive career.

Score: 87%