ALTAR OF PLAGUES made a dramatic entry into the Black Metal conversation with their 2009 LP White Tomb. The album was a crushing, often beauteous soundtrack to mankind’s tumble into ultimate dusk. Fans delighted in the miles-wide, miles-high sonic murals painted in the spellbinding colors of an irreparably polluted sunset. ALTAR OF PLAGUES’ next full length, Mammal, found the band desaturating and enclosing their sound. A struggle between internalism and expansiveness ensued, the music struggling with the task of reaching both outward and inward at once.
On their third full-length, Teethed Glory & Injury, ALTAR OF PLAGUES complete the transition inwards. The stark cover art expresses the album’s spirit with incisive accuracy. Teethed Glory & Injury is a ritual in closed space, delineated in sharp lines of high-contrast black and white.
“Mills” is an indicator of what to expect. Deconstruction is the order of the day. Insectoid strings buzz unpleasantly back and forth, pushed back intermittently by cold-hearted bass drops. Eventually tremolo-picked guitar (hello old friend!) enters the picture. The venerable overtures commence. Epic sounds sprawl and diffuse. But there is something different here. Electronic noises coil and unfurl in pockets near and far. Familiar and unfamiliar sounds are emphasized and de-emphasized in unusual ways.
The album begins in earnest with “God Alone”. Here the old elements stand to be counted – screeching, stabbing guitars, snarling vocals, bass and drums. However, there is an unmistakable starkness to the proceedings. This is a very cold place – a chamber of mourning with black painted walls, underlit and austere. Harmonic voices chorus from the shadows, Guitars rise and expand, but only out to the hard boundaries. They are trapped-in, and like the listener, they struggle to breathe.
This is Chamber Black Metal. The sounds are handcrafted and pure, open to scrutiny when the bombast is removed. There are many moments of quiet reflection and minimalist construction. There are scenes of total collapse, as in “Burnt Year” in which a skeletal Metal passage clatters and falls apart, toppled by raw, agonized cries of “I watched my mother / I watched the body / I watched my son / Die / Buried.”
The textures are many. The vocal harmonies of “A Remedy and a Fever”, are truly haunting, more so for being hung out over ominous subterranean rumbles and quivering, grinding guitar chords. During the PUSH AND RELEASE segment of the same song, ALTAR OF PLAGUES veer toward overload, saturating the mix with buzzsaw guitars and synthesizers, pounding drums and savage vocals. It is a righteous cacophony.
“Scald Scar of Water” is another highlight in the same vein. The disparate parts of the song become a rewarding whole on multiple listens. There is brooding blackness, remitting to a full-band cathedral ceremony of interlocking rhythms and raised voice, which then gives way to a synthesized coda.
Not everyone will hear the Glory here. The Kvlt Police have been hard on the PLAGUES since White Tomb. Conversely, fans of White Tomb may be disappointed to hear ALTAR OF PLAGUES turn their backs on the epic feats they executed so heartbreakingly well on that album. How can either camp be expected to accept “Twelve Was Ruin”, whose riff sounds like it was mistakenly ported over from a different album? Will the paltry 50 seconds of Black Metal fury at the end of the song be enough to assuage them?
But if one can put aside agendas and preconceptions, they will find that Teethed Glory & Injury is a treat. Once one comes to terms with the push-and-pull, idiosyncratic nature of the songwriting, the artistry is undeniable. Teethed Glory & Injury sounds something like what would result if Grizzly Bear applied their sense of sonic craft and inimitable arrangement to Black Metal. While it has become acceptable practice in Black Metal to burrow into the noise – to subsume everything into the galloping din – ALTAR OF PLAGUES have chosen instead to leave themselves exposed. This means the failed experiments and tenuous passages are naked for all to see. It also means the haunting impressions and triumphs of synergy are pure, limpid and graceful as sculptures in a gallery.
Teethed Glory & Injury turned out to be the swan song for ALTAR OF PLAGUES. It is a simple exercise to trace a direct line from their heady panoramic days to their cloistered experimental ones. Perhaps it’s easy to yearn for more the brilliant adventurousness that made up White Tomb, or for the transition sound of Mammal. One always wonders when a band that can do a thing truly well abandons that thing for less promising musical pursuits. There is the sense of wasted talent and skill, and enormous risk of alienation and scorn. However, one must realize that this comes with the territory; WE LISTEN TO AVANT-GARDE METAL. Without stiff-necked, often near-suicidal musical boldness, we would be bereft of a great number of masterworks. So if ALTAR OF PLAGUES want to exit the stage, not with a crowd-pleasing roar, but a somber self-eulogy in a dark chamber of their own construction, then all we can do is watch them go, and learn to appreciate the things that they have left us.
Release: April 2013
Label: Profound Lore Records
Avantgenre: Chamber Black Metal
Official site: http://www.facebook.com/altarofplagues
Review online since: 29.04.2014 / 20:10:12
01 – Mills