Author: BD Joyce
- 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.