SubRosa: For This We Fought the Battle of Ages
SubRosa's sound hasn't changed much on For This We Fought the Battle of Ages, but that doesn't mean it isn't getting stronger.
Right after a crunchy riff kicks in a minute into "Black Majesty", SubRosa's Rebecca Vernon howls, "Isn't it beautiful?" The minute preceding the song's burst into SubRosa's characteristically magisterial brand of doom is beautiful in a way most could agree upon. Vernon, with an almost hymn-like delivery, sings lowly as hushed noise accents the background. The vocals of Vernon and her bandmates Sarah Pendleton and Kim Pack (who both also perform the group's signature electric violins) have always been a major selling point of SubRosa, and on For This We Fought the Battle of Ages, the band's fourth studio LP, they remain as intoxicating as ever. On the delicate interlude "Il Cappio", which is sung in Italian, SubRosa turns off the amplifier overdrive and lets Vernon's voice gleam between the peaks of distortion that make up the rugged landscape of Battle of Ages. On the matter of the album as a whole, Vernon's question in "Black Majesty" can only be answered affirmatively: it is beautiful.
When it comes to metal, however, "beauty" takes on a different shape. Metal is a genre that allows music writers to warp the meaning of words, often to their inverse. "Pretty" metal is often lambasted for not sticking true to the genre's MO of brutal heaviness– see Alcest and Deafheaven. Reviews of black metal, or any variation of "blackened" metal, will employ words like "crusty", "bleak", and "ugly" in a positive light. Charlie Fell's vocals on the latest Cobalt album, Slow Forever, are "piercing" and "shrieking", but this is to the album's benefit. In the metal world, ugliness and nastiness are assets in the songwriter's toolkit. One of the most beautiful metal moments of 2016 comes in the thunderous chorus of Ihsahn's "Celestial Violence", which peaks with the wailing scream, "Celestial violence!"
SubRosa is a rare band that fits the bill of "beautiful" in the conventional and metal senses. The triumvirate of Vernon, Pendleton, and Pack can go from austere, unblemished vocal harmony (check the haunting cover of the folk standard "House Carpenter" on 2011's No Help for the Mighty Ones) to unbridled rage within the span of a single song – and never will you be able to hear the seams between the two. Light/dark contrast and intense crescendos are the bread and butter of more than one metal subgenre, but in the hands of SubRosa these familiar tools pack a wallop every time. The same is true with Battle of Ages, which right from the outset is a testament to the band's command of its inimitable style.
Battle of Ages follows 2013's More Constant than the Gods, a record that many rightly suspected would be SubRosa's finest hour. More Constant than the Gods touches on every facet of SubRosa's style, including the portentous, ten-plus minute epic song form ("The Usher") and the mournful sound of Pendleton and Pack's twin violins. The record also features one of the strongest metal tunes in recent years in "Cosey Mo", whose riff is an archetype for doom metal's inherent grooviness. Had SubRosa hung up their instruments after More Constant than the Gods, there would have been little reason to complain, even though we currently live in the age where All Bands Must Get Back Together (see My Bloody Valentine, Sleater-Kinney, and recently American Football). But listening to the storm clouds SubRosa conjures on Battle of Ages, it sounds like this Salt Lake City outfit still has thunder to summon – and that's a good thing.
There isn't much by way of sonic evolution on Battle of Ages. SubRosa's instantly identifiable sleeve art aesthetic, with its muted cream color, hasn't changed since No Help for the Mighty Ones. As is the case on More Constant than the Gods, the group creates towering compositions where tidal wave riffs rise and fall, and then give way to meditative passages led by hushed vocals and the mournful saw of a violin bow gliding across strings. Battle of Ages opens up in classic SubRosa fashion with the 15 minute album highlight "Despair is a Siren", which culminates in a crescendo that would put up a mean fight against any of Godspeed You! Black Emperor's lengthy instrumentals.
Yet even if Battle of Ages refines rather than reinvents the strengths of More Constant than the Gods, it certainly isn't any weaker for it. Doom is a genre that's easy to parody: just make sure you've got chunky guitar strums, achingly slow drumbeats, and growls reminiscent of an Orc – then it's off to the races. It's rare that a band can stick to one sound, even a distinctive one, and make it feel exciting with every new go-around, but SubRosa is a rare kind of band. Overfamiliarity can become a problem for even the most progressive of groups, but thus far it hasn't hindered SubRosa.
More Constant than the Gods and Battle of Ages have a lot of overlap sonically speaking, but they also hold their own. As great as the former is, if the latter is what SubRosa fought the battle of the ages for, then it was a battle well worth fighting. And that, to answer Vernon's bellows on "Black Majesty", is beautiful, in the way only superlative heavy metal can be.