Music

SubRosa: For This We Fought the Battle of Ages

Photo: Chris Martindale

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.


SubRosa

For This We Fought the Battle of Ages

Label: Profound Lore
US Release Date: 2016-08-26
UK Release Date: 2016-08-26
Amazon
iTunes

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.

8

So far J. J. Abrams and Rian Johnson resemble children at play, remaking the films they fell in love with. As an audience, however, we desire a fuller experience.

As recently as the lackluster episodes I-III of the Star Wars saga, the embossed gold logo followed by scrolling prologue text was cause for excitement. In the approach to the release of any of the then new prequel installments, the Twentieth Century Fox fanfare, followed by the Lucas Film logo, teased one's impulsive excitement at a glimpse into the next installment's narrative. Then sat in the movie theatre on the anticipated day of release, the sight and sound of the Twentieth Century Fox fanfare signalled the end of fevered anticipation. Whatever happened to those times? For some of us, is it a product of youth in which age now denies us the ability to lose ourselves within such adolescent pleasure? There's no answer to this question -- only the realisation that this sensation is missing and it has been since the summer of 2005. Star Wars is now a movie to tick off your to-watch list, no longer a spark in the dreary reality of the everyday. The magic has disappeared… Star Wars is spiritually dead.

Keep reading... Show less
6

This has been a remarkable year for shoegaze. If it were only for the re-raising of two central pillars of the initial scene it would still have been enough, but that wasn't even the half of it.

It hardly needs to be said that the last 12 months haven't been everyone's favorite, but it does deserve to be noted that 2017 has been a remarkable year for shoegaze. If it were only for the re-raising of two central pillars of the initial scene it would still have been enough, but that wasn't even the half of it. Other longtime dreamers either reappeared or kept up their recent hot streaks, and a number of relative newcomers established their place in what has become one of the more robust rock subgenre subcultures out there.

Keep reading... Show less
Theatre

​'The Ferryman': Ephemeral Ideas, Eternal Tragedies

The current cast of The Ferryman in London's West End. Photo by Johan Persson. (Courtesy of The Corner Shop)

Staggeringly multi-layered, dangerously fast-paced and rich in characterizations, dialogue and context, Jez Butterworth's new hit about a family during the time of Ireland's the Troubles leaves the audience breathless, sweaty and tearful, in a nightmarish, dry-heaving haze.

"Vanishing. It's a powerful word, that"

Northern Ireland, Rural Derry, 1981, nighttime. The local ringleader of the Irish Republican Army gun-toting comrades ambushes a priest and tells him that the body of one Seamus Carney has been recovered. It is said that the man had spent a full ten years rotting in a bog. The IRA gunslinger, Muldoon, orders the priest to arrange for the Carney family not to utter a word of what had happened to the wretched man.

Keep reading... Show less
10

Aaron Sorkin's real-life twister about Molly Bloom, an Olympic skier turned high-stakes poker wrangler, is scorchingly fun but never takes its heroine as seriously as the men.

Chances are, we will never see a heartwarming Aaron Sorkin movie about somebody with a learning disability or severe handicap they had to overcome. This is for the best. The most caffeinated major American screenwriter, Sorkin only seems to find his voice when inhabiting a frantically energetic persona whose thoughts outrun their ability to verbalize and emote them. The start of his latest movie, Molly's Game, is so resolutely Sorkin-esque that it's almost a self-parody. Only this time, like most of his better work, it's based on a true story.

Keep reading... Show less
7

There's something characteristically English about the Royal Society, whereby strangers gather under the aegis of some shared interest to read, study, and form friendships and in which they are implicitly agreed to exist insulated and apart from political differences.

There is an amusing detail in The Curious World of Samuel Pepys and John Evelyn that is emblematic of the kind of intellectual passions that animated the educated elite of late 17th-century England. We learn that Henry Oldenburg, the first secretary of the Royal Society, had for many years carried on a bitter dispute with Robert Hooke, one of the great polymaths of the era whose name still appears to students of physics and biology. Was the root of their quarrel a personality clash, was it over money or property, over love, ego, values? Something simple and recognizable? The precise source of their conflict was none of the above exactly but is nevertheless revealing of a specific early modern English context: They were in dispute, Margaret Willes writes, "over the development of the balance-spring regulator watch mechanism."

Keep reading... Show less
8
Pop Ten
Mixed Media
PM Picks

© 1999-2017 Popmatters.com. All rights reserved.
Popmatters is wholly independently owned and operated.

rating-image