When Los Angeles, CA doom instrumentalist quartet Iron Mtn ended its 7+ year stint back in June of 2013, loyal fans and followers of bassist/founder Scott Carlson (and his team of sludge assassins) mourned with the hope (and expectation) that his next move would be further into doom and not into obscurity. Carlson’s personability and extensive practical experience as a touring/gigging musician garnered him near cult status in the L.A. underground heavy music scene and it’s no shocker that fans and critics alike would be anxious for his next iteration. Ancient Altar sees Carlson joined by Iron Mtn veteran Barry Kavener (guitars/vocals) and newcomers Jesse Boldt (guitars) and Tom Oz (drums) with a revamped sound and philosophy emphasizing (according to Carlson) the core tenets of sincerity, hard work, modesty, and commitment to high quality art (musicianship and graphics/iconography). Well, shit, how could that not assure success, at least from a karmic stand point? Nevertheless, faltering yaysayers can rest at ease because Ancient Altar’s four track debut will undoubtedly give their bated breath a second wind.
Carlson advocates the grass roots approach, maintaining close knit ties to the local L.A. extreme metal scene; loyalty to this tight “family circle” pays dividends as the boundary between band mate, friendship, and kinship is blurred. With a little help from engineer/producer Etay Levy (original drummer for Brainoil and formerly of Iron Mtn), some tasty lo-fi atmospherics lend a vintage touch to the band’s relentlessly brooding assault. Levy captured all music for the debut on his 1″ 8 track tape machine, bypassing all digital short-cuts and lazy pasting. Stripped down starter, Tidal, rides on this retro kick, flaunting warm, analog tones and some lean, riffing muscle. A sinister, heavy-as-fucking-lead opening riff and sequential blues lead has the Buckingham/Oborn stamp, fitting nicely anywhere in Electric Wizard’s post Let Us Prey catalogue. Carlson and Kavener split vocal duties, and the contrast of baritone spoken word (opening minutes) and black metal rasp darkens the vibe and gives the track some added versatility; James Plotkin (O.L.D., Khanate) handles mastering duties, and his ‘darkened sheen’ is especially vivid throughout. If you watch the track’s accompanying video below, the multimedia ‘despair as art’ theme (embraced by the band) will make obvious sense. Black and white video clips show wandering, floating eyes, metal spheres, and faces and bodies in various stages of contortion and expression…all seemingly portents of death (or at the very least mind torture and control). It’s an essential component to what is easily the band’s finest moment.
Having a frontman so seemingly open and attuned to the nuances of (underground) culture and music and the invaluable relationships between band members and fans is refreshing; this same attitude and willingness to support the local rock scene without prejudice (Carlson has stated in the past that pushing boundaries by mixing and matching various sub genres of heavy music on a single bill is healthy and ultimately beneficial) allows him (and the band) to bridge stylistic gaps within individual songs and across the album as a whole. Ek Balam is a great example, its first four and a half minutes coming as close to a blackened reinterpretation of Kyuss’s El Rodeo as humanly possible before transitioning into a ‘NOLA-esque’ slow tempo spidery groove. Carlson’s unmistakable vocal rasp kicks in to dirty the palette and cleanse the proverbial ‘sludge lover’s soul’. Gary Griffiths (formerly of Morgion) turned and tweaked the knobs during the vocal recording process; as the decided ‘go-to-guru’ for bleak sonic atmospherics, his lasting footprint is just another ‘aligned star’ for this album’s success.
Although not boasting the same staying power as the album’s opening half, closers Feed and Pulled Out serve up some bite of their own. The former shows a cooler, stoned out side to the band, with some faster pentatonic fret board acrobatics to assuage those craving a break from the bludgeon and bruise. The slow burn funereal dirge of Pulled Out is strong enough musically, but the flat, ‘monochrome’ vocal growl is high in the mix and (to me) neutralizes the impact of the song. It’s unfortunate because the band misses an opportunity for a great (rather than just good) finale. Minor criticism, yes, but this band strives for the highest standards and we owe it to them to meet them half way by demanding (and expecting) the same.
Los Angeles label Midnite Collective picked a winner with this 27-minute slab of doom, blues and post metal groove. Ancient Altar has carved their mark at the starting line and I can only imagine the momentum their respective talents and experience will bring from this point forward. Digital and cassette versions of the debut will be available July 15th (via Midnite Collective) and be sure to catch them on their West Coast (US) tour this August. Recommended.
Scribed by: Jeremy Moore