Since their inception with 2008’s acclaimed White Tomb, Altar Of Plagues have amassed scores of acolytes fervently proclaiming them as the new shining light of extreme metal. But while their amalgam of post-rock, doom, ambient electronics and black metal acrimony has won them many admirers, others have considered them derivative at best, and flat-out boring at worst. In fact, a friend of mine frequently refers to them as ‘Altar of Not Being Really That Good’ (now there’s a mouthful).
With an early lyrical focus on the natural world and a broad similarity in sound, comparisons to atmospheric eco-warriors Wolves in the Throne Room were inevitable – and while I personally found much to be enjoyed in Altar’s previous material (especially 2010’s vast, fatalistic Mammal), they never seemed to quite escape the shadow of that band’s mystic grandeur, even as they dove to more suffocating depths.
From the opening of the Irish trio’s third LP Teethed Glory And Injury, however, it is discernable that something has shifted – little surprise perhaps, given the huge creative departures marking each prior release. But this record finds Altar Of Plagues more restlessly devoted to experimentation than ever before, yet also more focused, more direct and much more deliberate.
The spectral dark ambience of ‘Mills’ leads the album with waves of buzzing drone, as a series of looped, earthy string tones and minimal industrial pulse expand into a gorgeous haze of tremolo-picked guitar and gut-rumbling sub-bass. The ferocity of ‘God Alone’ is heightened after this precursor, a savage mêlée of blast beats, scorched vocals and insistent discordant riffs, offset by subtle ambient elements and Jesu-reminiscent vocoder.
Each passage swims with sonic embellishments – in fact there is so much detail, so many ideas packed into one record that on the first few listens it’s hard to take it all in. Industrial clatter and deconstructed tick-tocks mingle with ritualistic bass chorals and rippling synths. There are neoclassical-flavoured drones, simmering post rock melodies, grind-edged dissonance, and coruscating electronic tidal waves.
Ebb and flow are still critical for the band, but have been closely refined. For instance, while ‘Scald Scar of Water’ and ‘Found, Oval and Final’ are blistering and torturous, ‘A Remedy and A Fever’ simmers with an evolving, understated horror every bit as visceral as each punctuating blackened assault. Every atmospheric tangent works to balance the record’s sheer ugliness – though this is ugliness in its most primal, majestic, electrifying form.
Dave Condon’s tormented vocals are prominent, and though diversions from extreme vocals are infrequent (see James Kelly’s devastating layered chants on ‘A Remedy and A Fever’ and ‘A Scald Scar of Water’), his delivery offers an impressive range of feeling. As ‘Burnt Year’ lurches with greater force he becomes increasingly frenzied, his vocal cutting with desperation while he practically retches with grief.
Teethed Glory… revels in its length – its truest power is cumulative, demanding to be listened to as a continuous piece for the full impact. Some of the songs even seem to make less sense without the company of surrounding tracks, but if (like me) you’re still a fan of whole albums, that’s not necessarily a bad thing. And while there are more individual songs than on previous releases, their division and arrangement aids the LP’s solid sense of purpose.
It just feels one extensive, unbroken narrative, unfolding much like a journey across wide plains, cloying swamps, into the dark chasms of the earth, and finally ascending the mountain peaks. Arrival signalled by a chiming dulcimer, final cut ‘Reflection Pulse Remains’ is the towering zenith; opening with a feinting post-metal rhythm, momentum builds in a relentless march, icy riffs arcing above a warm, twisting framework while Condon bellows with all available breath. Then, as suddenly as it arrived, the final climax shrinks back into the void, the album’s final moments drowning in warped noise.
Simply put, this is a really, really great record. It is expansive, evocative, multi-faceted. It is by turns exhausting and exhilarating – and ultimately, it is inspiring in its commitment to sheer inventiveness. Teethed Glory And Injury is another emphatic statement that Altar Of Plagues is a band unlikely to ever settle in one stylistic incarnation for too long. It’s bound to piss off plenty of fans… but equally, it should cause many a naysayer to re-evaluate their notion of what this band is truly capable of.
Scribed by: George Leeming