Pilgrimage, the magnificent sophomore release from Alberta, Canada’s doom/noise duo Mares of Thrace is an album of few ingredients. However, the resulting mixture is rich and full-bodied. The biography of the band is simple: it was formed in 2009 by drummer Stef MacKichan and vocalist/guitarist Thérèse Lanz, both of whom had worked together previously on other musical projects. Mares of Thrace released their debut, the Moulting, the following year. It was a hit on Canadian college radio, and was widely acclaimed by critics. The band’s new album is a three-act Biblically inspired tale, weaving the historic melodrama of King David’s relationship with Bathsheba around Lanz’s endlessly grinding riffs and MacKichan’s indomitable percussion.
So, you have two musicians who’ve gauged each other’s strengths, a suitably hot-blooded religious tale, and a pile of dissonance — a fairly straightforward equation. However, while Mares of Thrace churn out propulsive noise-rock that owes a debt to Unsane as much as Swans, and harness a substantial amount of sludge-ridden potency à la Eyehategod and kin, they’ve crafted a sound uniquely their own. The new album serves to test one’s resolve. Can a modest duo from the heavier spectrum sustain the listener’s attention to detail over such rugged terrain? The answer to that question is a resounding yes, and by ensuring Pilgrimage is stamped with an exclusive tenor, the band offer all sorts of sonic recompense.
A great deal of Pilgrimage’s individuality comes down to the fact that it does not contain any conventional guitar or bass, relying on Lanz’s customized baritone guitar to set the album’s mercurial mood. Lanz’s guitar was built by Converge’s Kurt Ballou, a man who knows his way round those low-end frequencies through his production work with many metal artists (not to mention his own celebrated musical history). With a bass and guitar pick-up affixed to her six-string, and a significantly powerful guitar rig behind her, Lanz is able to wrench considerably weightier and brutish tones from her guitar. This enables her to establish an unyielding foundation from which the band can direct their ire.
Recording the new album in Chicago with producer Sanford Parker was an astute move. His experience working with similar metal free spirits such as Minsk, Rwake and Yob has clearly paid off for Mares of Thrace. Although ‘crushing’ is an eternally recycled cliché in the metal world, Pilgrimage contains the exact levels of excruciating heaviness required to earn such a description. Melding sludge, noise, doom and a touch of more experimental textures, Mares of Thrace don’t go in for moderation on much of the album, although there is much subtlety to be found.
“Act I: David Glimpses Bathsheba” begins the onslaught with a squeal of feedback and a dirge-like riff you could dig a hole to the center of the earth with. Lanz’s multilayered howls are woven through the hammering morass, and the band set to reaffirming the fact that although they may be a mere twosome, they are more than capable of making a gigantic noise. “The Pragmatist” and “The Gallwasp” follow on. The former drags itself from a subterranean doom-encumbered mire, the latter lurches forward menacingly off the back of a distorted martial beat that MacKichan lays down.
Pilgrimage is imbued with conflict. Each song sounds like MacKichan and Lanz must have entered a bone-scattered den to tear the tunes away from some brooding beast. Excuse the melodramatic metaphor, but the evidence of a monstrous scuffle defines Pilgrimage. “The Perpetrator” and “Act III: A Curse Falls on the House of David” ooze quarrelsomeness, not just in their presentation, which is wonderfully grotesque, but also in their construction. This musical battlefield admirably reflects the eternal conflict between inherent lustfulness and restrictive religious doctrine.
In spite of that bitter sparring, Pilgrimage is not all amp-melting aggressiveness. Ambient passages found on the hushed electronic fuzz of “Triple B” and instrumental “The Three-Legged Courtesan…” reinforce the album’s sultry mysticism. “The Three…”, in particular, serves as a striking reminder of the delicate juggling act the band perform while sculpting such noisescapes–balancing viciousness and underlying melody, from which all their songs are built. The bulk of Pilgrimage tumbles forth as a rolling wall of noise, but to ignore the intrinsic bluesy harmonies and susurrus vocals on “The Goat Thief”, and the final epic “…and the Bird Surgeon”, would be to fail to appreciate the album’s marvelous equilibrium between artistry and irascibility.
Mares of Thrace’s second album eclipses their first, which is a significant feat given that their debut was phenomenal. There is much to discover on Pilgrimage, although in truth it works equally well as a straightforward hunk of seething noise. Should you choose to explore deeper, you’ll find plenty of vexatious delights — from the harshest intonations of Lanz’s vocals to the mangling tenor of her riffs, from the dexterity of MacKichan’s percussion to the album’s abundant musicianship. Pilgrimage is raw and ragged bliss, a testament to the enduring might of two likeminded musicians locking into the most visceral of grooves.