“When you die it’s the same as if everybody else did too.”
—Cormac McCarthy, The Road
Heavy metal is a genre spilling over with gripping fantastical escapades, but the most resonant metal narrates tales that aren’t imaginary at all. Instead, it speaks directly of the painful emotional experiences we all share; metal has never shied away from summoning up grief-stricken scenes or spectrums of sorrow. Bands such as Mournful Congregation, Winter, and Finnish funeral doom pioneers Thergothon and Skepticism have demoralized the hardiest souls, but few bands have conveyed loss with such gut-wrenching tenor as Evoken.
Atra Mors is Evoken’s first full-length album in five years, and the band’s most lugubrious yet. The doom quintet, from Lyndhurst, New Jersey, has released four previous albums, all near-perfect requiems of monumental shadow, long recognized by fans and metal critics alike as all-conquering kingdoms of woe. Atra Mors is another leviathan of anguish, an unrelenting mélange of misery, comprising eight soul-crushing edifices of calamitous audio and emotional weight. Ridden with reverb and saturnine melodies, Atra Mors runs more than an hour in length and offers evocative and grueling black bile balladry made for solitary listening and deep rumination.
Evoken clearly recognize that attempts to barter with loss and play speculative ‘if only … ’ games do nothing to ease its inevitable magnitude. Accordingly, the band constructs towering treatises to the inescapable enormity of grief. Viscoelastic and portentous riffs are stretched out and cut with death metal bursts, and frontman John Paradiso’s guttural rasps communicate the butchery of the heart (and the futility of arguing with an absent god).
Nothing is going to halt the inexorable encumbrance of sorrow. Vince Verkay’s powerful percussion batters the traumatized consciousness, while David Wagner’s bass provides peals of thunder to keep you fearful of what looms ahead. Paradiso and Chris Molinari’s riffs reflect the purity of the oncoming pain. Layers of mournfulness are drawn from the frets, as unfolding compositions explore caverns of blackness and wander tundra leveled by the overwhelming ravages and privations of loss.
Atra Mors is daunting and utterly woebegone, with diameters of grief that eclipse the sun. The production is Evoken’s best yet – thicker and denser, yet also more desolate. “Atra Mors” and “Descent Into Frantic Dream” open with reverie-like ambles before being crushed by the hammer of hopelessness. Throughout, sweeping panoramas are draped in morbidity as riffs create a ruinous atmosphere and crestfallen gravities make the album’s colossal mass even more concentrated.
However, like any heartbreak, Atra Mors also ebbs and flows as unexpected emotional tides wash ashore, offering tantalizing glimpses beyond the clouds of sadness. Moments of beauty are borne along by Don Zaros’ keyboards. Drawing from a kosmiche current more reminiscent of the orchestral synth of Klaus Schulze than anything garishly symphonic, Zaros’ work provides the romanticism, adding a fine sense of Gothic drama to proceedings. Evoken further emphasize the seductiveness of its depressive suites with strings and susurrus effects, such as those binding the crawling dirge of “Grim Eloquence”. “Into Aphotic Devastation” opens with haunting cello and “The Unechoing Dread” unspools an unsettling thread with spoken word vocals and a frosty threnodic drone.
Two plaintive instrumental tracks offer glimpses of hope mixed with distress. The piano-led “A Tenebrous Vision” and the steel-string strum and cello of “Requies Aeterna” are respites betwixt the storm clouds (Evoken makes sure to scatter ambient passages, however brief, throughout its tempests). “An Extrinsic Divide” is a grand illustration of the elegance of despair. A blackened, encircling churn, the song is dominant and cruel, yet it also reveals there is nothing monochromatic about Evoken’s songwriting. Graduations, subtleties and melodic swells rise throughout the song, as they do on Atra Mors as a whole. Those surges of luminosity shine light on the tensile solidity of it all, reflecting the totality of loss, but they also express the exquisiteness of heartache.
The suffering that Evoken has put to dispiriting use over its two-decade existence gnaws at the fibers of self-doubt long after the band’s songs have finished. The creeping thought that life is nothing more than a lurch from lament to lament seems entirely plausible as you listen to the band’s red-raw lachrymosity, and watch it bleed indelible trails of despair. Evoken conjures disillusionment like no other, and Atra Mors represents the pinnacle of the band’s career thus far.
Misery doesn’t follow a straight path, and nor does Atra Mors. It heaves itself over obstacles, gives in to desperation, weeps at the emergence of light and both curses at and revels in darkness. It is a torrent of tenebrous metal, a dolorous maelstrom, and it perfectly captures the many dimensions of loss.