Altar of Plagues | Mammal
It is viciously tempting for musicians to add “just-one-more-thing“; especially ones producing such massive and atmospheric sounds. It’s a common sin among bands that invest effort into building atmospheres to over-indulge in experimentalism and ambiance. Even the great post-metal forebears, Isis, fell victim to this. What were once focused and enduring sludgey-yet-galloping songs became lush and vivid soundscapes. Beautiful and rapturous as Isis’ later work was, it conspicuously lacked the trance-enducing focus on straightforward riffs. Ireland’s Altar of Plagues seem to have struck the tenuous balance between building gigantic, foreboding soundscapes that shift glacially behind pummeling drums and hasty guitars. They are dichotomous: able to show restraint and to unleash all hell.
Although their roots are in black metal, Altar of Plagues’ 2011 release, Mammal, shares a bit in common with post-metalers, Isis. Deep, chesty yells into a seeming chasm; down-tuned chugging guitar alternating with dissonant picking higher on the scale; and a restrained patience while developing an atmosphere. Altar of Plagues have emerged from the Black Metal realm and bridged over to post-metal, and in many ways have succeeded in redefining both genres. Like a dull saw, they oscillate with subtle intent until they’ve eventually cut through.
Weighing in at 55:00 minutes, brought in by a mere four tracks, Mammal will require monastic patience for listeners to fully grasp its mass. And for all the listener’s patience, there are no over-the-top crescendos for cheap, easy payoff. Rather, Altar of Plagues’ persistence results in subtle revelations that hint at a great, vacuous nothing; something legitimately dark. The name, “Altar of Plagues”, itself is hyperbole; dark and grim simply for the sake of being so. Prosaic or not, it’s an appropriate name. A genre like Black Metal is full of theatrics, but Altar of Plagues approach it with such anonymity and sincerity, they manage to suspend any pretense that would normally stigmatize such a band.
When Profound Lore Records introduced Mammal via Twitter, they did so saying that this was their “Marrow of the Spirit” of 2011. Referring to Washington State’s, Agalloch’s massive and exquisitely executed 2010 album of the same label. It’s a fair comparison: both are interesting studies into a bleak and desolate world. Mammal‘s approach, however, is crushing, swift, and with a singular instinct, like a prehistoric animal. Its 18-minute opener moves in like thick fog, and from that opaque mist emerges a hulking shadowy figure who continues to shift into various silhouettes; all of them as crushing as they are eerie.
The third track, “When the Sun Drowns in the Ocean” emanates cold, gravity-laden air. The air you would find in a tomb. And so appropriately, the vocals are provided by an old, haggard sounding woman who is singing in a traditional Irish style known as “Keening.” As Altar of Plagues explains,
“This was a vocal lament normally sang over the corpse of the deceased by an elderly women in improvised or pre-composed meter. The woman’s hair would be un-brushed and let hang down over the corpse to symbolize the disarray of death while expressing emotions of grief, loss, bitterness and love. Reference would be made to the deceased person’s genealogy, deeds and character and curses could be uttered if there was an identifiable person to blame for the death. The custom, although probably of ancient origin, can be dated to the 8th century and remained an integral part of Irish tradition up until the beginning of the 20th century when centuries of opposition from the church finally succeeded in abolishing it.”
Whether sullen and dirge-like as the track, “When the Sun Drowns in the Ocean” or a volcanic conflagration of swift, serrated black metal technique on “Feather and Bone”, Altar of Plagues is able to aptly create and support mesmerizing and imposing atmospheres. More impressive than architecting such massive songs, is their ability to furnish them. Whereas Godspeed You! Black Emperor intricately adds weird noises whose sum are greater than their parts, Altar of Plagues spends minimal time meandering. Their intention, though vast, is still focused and pregnant with intent.
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This entry was posted on August 19, 2011 by Justin Keller. It was filed under Music, post-rock and was tagged with agalloch, altar of plagues, black metal, isis, mammal, metal, post-metal, profound lore.