Author: BD Joyce
- 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.
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.