[15 May 2012]
Egalitarian is unlikely to be the first word that leaps to mind when you think about the heavy metal community. Admittedly, metal has a couple of dubious neighborhoods, but the vast majority of the metal fraternity don’t decide on a band’s worth in relation to its geographic location or its cultural make-up. Reputation is what counts the most. A good metal band is a good metal band no matter where it originates, and Italian trio Ufomammut has had no problem securing its status as one the leading contenders of the shadowy psychedelic doom set.
Oro: Opus Primum, Ufomammut’s seventh and latest album, comprises five songs that form the first part of an epic 10-track odyssey. The second part of the tale, Oro: Opus Alter, is due for release this coming September. Like the majority of Ufomammut’s work thus far, Opus Primum is a conceptual suite with an overarching storyline. It explores magical and ritualistic alchemical processes, and the transformation of human fears into gold. Fantastical and heady stuff indeed.
The evolving narrative on the new album won’t surprise fans of Ufomammut’s previous work. Eve, the band’s last full-length, contained a singular 45-minute track that explored the mystical beginnings of humankind. Of course, an esoteric idea extrapolated to maximize its libretto-like potential is hardly an uncommon theme in the metal genre—and all of Ufomammut’s albums have surveyed extensive metaphysical pathways. But while it’s easy to dismiss many metal bands’ occultist leanings as gimmickry, Ufomammut is an altogether more convincing outfit due to two important factors.
Firstly, the band’s country of origin has always played a key role in shaping its compositions. Italy’s rich history of Christian lore has continuously inspired the band, although not strictly speaking in a positive fashion as Ufomammut’s gaze has always remained fixed on the Left Hand Path. Secondly, the band members are, quite simply, rock ‘n’ roll shamans. You only need listen to a single track to recognize the transcendental tenor of the group’s darkened spiritual suites. This is a crucial point underscoring the band’s credibility, and Opus Primum‘s success.
Alchemy is one of the most ancient magical traditions. Its rites of initiation, aimed at passing down its metallurgical secrets, sought to purify both practitioner and substance. Ufomammut clearly recognize this liturgical aspect as Opus Primum is a ritual unto itself. And, like any ceremony worth getting involved in, its musical component has captured the essence of celestial wonder and more terrestrial familiarities; earth on one’s hands, rocks under one’s feet, or the unbridled joy of plugging into a gigantic stack of amplifiers.
A hybrid of the past, present and future, Ufomammut’s reverberating left-field doom is the perfect soundtrack to arcane rites—referencing the psychedelic pulse of Pink Floyd, the interstellar drive of Hawkwind, and the hypnotic cadence of Neu! Take a hunk of space rock, throw in some swirling Krautrock and psych, grind it all up with some Black Sabbath, and serve at an Aleister Crowley appreciation evening; that’s the sort of multifaceted blend of metal Ufomammut purveys.
Originally formed in 1999, the band—consisting of Poia on guitar and effects, Urlo on vocals, bass, and synth, and Vita on drums—has always taken the panoramic route. The journey of Opus Primum is no different. Opener “Empireum” is 14 minutes of mesmerizing undulating tempos. Weaving a repetitive keyboard line around a tribal percussiveness, the track eventually collapses into a boiling mass of distorted bass and guitar—its minimalist droning threads cut in decisively cruel fashion.
The nurturing of tranquil contemplative passages, and the crushing negation of them, is a familiar refrain on Opus Primum. The dirge-like “Aureum” dismisses the ambience early. The band works the sludgy feedbacking riffs hard till halfway through, when the song’s objective begins to take hazy form as the heavy bombardment settles into an ideal head-nodding pace. “Infearnatural” and “Magickon” work to a similar velocity. Although shorter in length than the preceding tracks, there’s no diminishing of the hulking riffs and drums. Nor the swathes of electronic effects and the enigmatic, often susurrus vocals.
Opus Primum works to a simple formula (although the elements weighed are anything but). Tempos are pushed forward throughout with the promise of unearthing some hitherto obscured knowledge tantalizingly within reach. And there are moments where the album’s ultimate destination very nearly comes into view. The band lays out a wonderful climax to the album with “Mindomine”—with sawtoothed riffs, eerie synth, and spine chilling vocals dissolving into a chaotic mire. But of course, for all of Opus Primum‘s heaving crescendos, you never reach the final summit. This is only the beginning of an even greater expedition, and anticipation of the overall journey is one of the album’s greatest strengths. You want to go on. You want to discover more.
All Ufomammut’s members are clearly adepts of Hermetic rock of the highest order. The band has crafted acclaimed albums in the past, but the rarefied distillation of the cryptically spiritual and the sonically stentorian marks Opus Primum as its finest work yet. It is a magnificent first step towards shaping the Lapis Philosophicus, the Stone of the Wise—the concentration of the alchemic art. Like the best mind-bending excursions into the unknown, the opus in its entirety will be a wonderfully unfolding voyage. September feels like a very long way away to wait for part two of the tale, but in the meantime there’s endless pleasure to be found attempting to decipher the album’s elliptical and beguiling phraseology.