Following the career arcs of so many metal bands at the same time, things can get predictable to the point where you’re able to anticipate well in advance where some bands are taking their music. Some more gifted bands knock you off your chair by advancing their music farther than anyone could have expected, but for the most part, the musical growth is subtle enough to sound like it was what we had been expecting all along. Thing is, it’s no fun thinking you’ve got a band sussed. It’s a lot more fun to be challenged by a brash young band that decides to buck trends and approach their art in ways we couldn’t have foreseen.
When that does happen, however, when a burgeoning young talent comes along and virtually tosses a rather effective musical formula out the window in favor of something a lot less friendly to the ears, one’s initial reaction is often that of complete befuddlement. Take Irish black-metal band Altar of Plagues, for instance. The band’s 2008 self-released Sol EP was a mildly intriguing blend of atmospheric black-metal and the much more expansive sounds of the “post-metal” fad led by the likes of Isis. A year later, the debut full-length White Tomb was a revelation. Not only did the record offer a much more seamless combination of the two differing styles of extreme music, but a sly hint of lush, shoegaze-inspired melodies crept into the music as well, which wound up complementing the nature-themed lyrics by vocalist/multi-instrumentalist James Kelly. White Tomb proved to be a rarity, an album that garnered much critical praise yet at the same time was also embraced by many stingy black-metal fans as well.
Here’s where the pomposity of the music critic completely backfires. You’d think the follow-up would expand on the idea even more, whether placing more emphasis on the band’s growing melodic strengths or blurring the line between metals black and post even more. You’d think. Instead, Mammal proves to be a significant regression by the Cork, Ireland trio. It’s harsh; it’s menacing; it’s bleak; it is one miserable, death-obsessed, vicious piece of work, comprised of four unforgiving tracks over the span of 52 minutes that plumb the darkest depths of both extreme metal and Kelly’s own tormented psyche.
You know you’re in for a tough listen when an album opens up with an 18-minute exercise in pure black-metal bleakness such as “Neptune is Dead”. Not far removed from what Washingtonian naturalists Wolves in the Throne Room have made a name for themselves doing, Kelly, bassist Dave Condon, and drummer Johnny King create a fluid ebb and flow while at the same time letting loose furious tremelo-picked riffs and blastbeats. Coming on the heels of something as haunting and arresting as White Tomb, it’s a shock to the system, but given weeks — or in this writer’s case, months — to settle in, “Neptune is Dead” turns into a compelling composition in its own right, the segues from controlled chaos to fleeting moments of introspection well-timed and gracefully executed. Meanwhile, Kelly eschews the usual lyrical themes of heritage and nature for something more deeply personal, howling at one point, “I know that when I die, the world is alive, and I cannot see a world without them / Those who came before me, I cannot see a world without them / I search for a greater meaning, and still I find nothing.”
It’s a disheartening way to start a record and a very big, difficult song to take in, but that’s merely the beginning of what turns into a very personal, mournful series of songs. Starting with an intro that features a recurring sustained guitar note atop a rampaging rhythm riff and double-kick-driven beat, “Father and Bone” cleverly creates the mournful atmosphere of a tolling bell, which reprises in subtle ways throughout the nearly 12-minute track. The flat-out beautiful and rousing closing epic, “All Life Converges to Some Centre”, subtly works in more melodies than the rest of the record, but it’s the preceding song, “When the Sun Drowns in the Ocean” that proves to be the album’s most fascinating moment. Bookended by a haunting traditional Gaelic funeral lament called “keening”, it’s surreal, primitive, and almost otherworldly as a female voice hauntingly sings an unconventional melody. A few minutes later, Kelly screams, achingly, “I was young and you promised that we would live forever / The brother, the mother, the sister and the son, all of them are gone / Who will conduct the ending scene, now that my love is extinct?”
By now, it’s clear that this isn’t mere caterwauling for the sake of being morbid, that Kelly is opening up to the listener on a level that few metal bands are brave enough to do. It’s his own personal funeral mass: a lament full of anger, regret, and deep sadness, and although it’s a lot less “easy on the ears” than Altar of Plagues’ past work, it’s by far the band’s richest album. In these musicians’ case, avoiding predictability was the best thing they could possibly have done.