Author: BD Joyce
- 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.