Akercocke’s reign of terror begun during the late ’90s. Blending elements of black and death metal with a progressive-induced perspective, the band entered dynamically the extreme metal scene with its debut, Rape of the Bastard Nazarene. Despite the raw sound of the first album and the follow-up record, Goat of Mendes, both releases revealed a diamond in the rough. If the band kept working on its sound something truly magnificent would come forth.
That promise was fulfilled with a fantastic trilogy of releases, beginning with 2003’s Choronzon. Production-wise the band made significant improvements, but more importantly, they began expanding their vision and scope. The progressive take highlighted not only by the technical aptitude of the band but with the inclusion of clean parts alongside the brutal outbreaks was apparent from early on. “A Skin for Dancing In” and “Breaking Silence” from Goat of Mendes were such majestic instances, but it was not until “Leviathan” from Choronzon was spawned that the full extent of this effect was displayed. This form of Akercocke reached its peak with Words That Go Unspoken, Deeds That Go Undone, easily one of the best technical extreme records of the ’00s, while Antichrist, released in 2007, solidified the band’s stature.
Unfortunately Antichrist also signaled the end (thankfully not permanent) for Akercocke, with the band slipping into the darkness for a decade. Other acts, featuring members of Akercocke, rose in its place in the likes of the Antichrist Imperium and Voices. Even though both were high-quality projects, and have gone to release strong albums, they were unable to fill the void left by the original pioneers. So thankfully, after a long wait, Akercocke appears again with original members Jason Mendonça, David Gray and Paul Scanlan returning alongside new bassist Nathanael Underwood and long-time Akercocke collaborator and live member Sam Loynes.
For Renaissance in Extremis, the band chooses to work with individuals familiar with its sound. The mastering process is handled by Alan Douches, who also worked on Words That Go Unspoken, Deeds That Go Undone and has mastered an abundance of progressive minded, extreme metal bands, in the likes of early Mastodon, Leng Tch’e, and Ephel Duath. But more importantly Neil Kernon is sitting behind the mixing desk, and apart from having worked with Akercocke during their best phase in Choronzon and Words That Go Unspoken, Deeds That Go Undone, he is someone that understands both extreme metal, having worked with bands like Nile and Deicide, but also progressive rock/metal, being part of releases by Yes, Shadow Gallery and Spiral Architect.
With the new album, Akercocke returns to a position of origin. The majority of the record reigns in heaviness and brutality, while the complex structures are relentless in their method. When it comes to the progression and layout of the music, this is one of the most technical works the band has released, and that says a lot. The guitar work is stunning in its intricacy and in the dual delivery of Mendonça and Scanlan, while Underwood and Gray produce a towering rhythm section with an uncanny layer of versatility. Notably, the performance of Gray behind the drumkit is awe-inspiring, as most of his appearances have been.
Despite the brutal sense, Akercocke has an uncanny ability to produce catchy riffs that grab the attention. “Enraptured by Evil” and “Scapegoat” from Choronzon, “Verdelet” and “Eyes of Dawn” from Words That Go Unspoken, Deeds That Go Undone are a few examples, and that is the case with Renaissance in Extremis. The instant “Disappear” begins you are hooked to this record, while this mentality appears throughout the album from the intoxicating “Unbounded by Sin” to the direct “Inner Sanctum”. These elements arise from the death metal leaning of Akercocke, while the black metal influence takes over a different manifestation, where instead of relying on the textural qualities of the genre throughout, the band takes on its atmospheric element.
Despite the overarching darkness of Akercocke’s visions, there is also a tendency towards the lighter tonality. Phrases appear in the background of the opening track, presenting an almost playful characteristic but with the underlying twisted touch always present. Neither melodic nor dissonant, these augmentations can produce moments of grandeur and majesty, as in the ending of “Unbounded Sin”, but also radiating with a smooth and cool perspective, which is not that common among extreme metal bands. The start of “A Final Glance Back Before Departing” sees Akercocke exploring this side before unleashing a fury and mayhem without precedent.
The true extent of Akercocke’s vision is revealed when the progressive dimension is considered. It is not uncommon for death metal bands to include prog elements, either in the form of highly technical playing, as in the later days of Death, or in prog rock renditions, as in the works of Opeth. But Akercocke displays a unique quality of their prog elements. “One Chapter Closing for Another to Begin” revolves around progressive rock concepts, with the playing and clean vocals hinting to that sound, but there is always an underlying dark concept that lurks beneath the surface. The inclusion of Loynes aids in that respect, presenting some moments of strange sonic dissonance, in the insane “First to Leave the Funeral”. This is where the sound of the band transcends the prog rock realm and dives into an experimental world, with the ending of “First to Leave the Funeral” and the beginning of “Familiar Ghosts” speaking to that fact.
Renaissance in Extremis is a pure Akercocke record, and it is great to see these guys back at it. Without missing a beat, Akercocke rejuvenates its progressive black/death blend, creating an enticing and challenging work of art. A listen to the album’s closer “A Particular Cold Sept” will convince you on the potency of Akercocke’s poison, crafting an impressive ambiance that brings to mind a fantastical, infernal jazz bar, or the waiting room from Twin Peaks. This underlying demonic spirit, hidden behind the death, black and progressive elements is what has driven them, and it is superb to see that it still pushes Akercocke to produce work of such high quality.