Written by Kep
>Altars – Ascetic Reflection
>Releasing July 8
>Everlasting Spew Records
Since Altars was unfamiliar to me when I received the promo, I did some groundwork on these Aussie boys and quickly discovered they have a strong back catalogue, including a very good debut LP entitled Paramnesia in 2013 and two killer splits, one of which they shared with Heaving Earth (whose new album I covered earlier this year). They’ve been silent for nearly a decade, though, and the reason is an unfortunate one: a long and grueling illness forced out founding member Cale Schmidt, who occupied the same role on bass and vocals that’s now been filled by Brendan Sloan of Convulsing. You could call Ascetic Reflection their comeback album if you want, but however you think of it just know that their sound was and remains a visceral and unique one.
The Altars riff design feels distinct, with lots of circular motion that feels both economical and brutal in its simplicity. It’s quite dissonant, but guitarist Lewis Fischer’s work isn’t the kind that slithers and winds in serpentine coils; instead it’s a quarry’s worth of mountainous boulders that pulverize, towering sheer tremolo-driven cliff faces, and periodic interjections that stab and whip like wind through a rocky canyon. You’ll notice all the references to stone, and they’re not just there because I chose a metaphor at random and ran with it; there’s a hard edge to the whole package, one that gives the record a cold sort of brutality, and the imagery of unfeeling stone monoliths just seems to fit. The production really enhances that mood, too, with sharp edges and a dry, coarse body that feels particularly harsh.
The result is an aesthetic that presents with plenty of obvious influences and similarities to other outfits, but no real true parallel. If you’re a fan of, say, Replicant, you’ll hear moments that remind you of the New Jerseyans, like the passage that throws on the brakes at 2:15 of the title track with thick halting chords followed by thinner, angular answers. And if you dig Artificial Brain you’ll love sections of “Opening the Passage”, like its opening of pale tremeloed tendrils waving in the void, and the way that it sneakily weaves an unnerving shadow of a riff through an overwhelming wall of harsh bass-and-drums-and-roars near the three-quarters mark of the track. In some songs Altars blackens things to the point that they essentially transform into black metal for a stretch; it happens around 2:30 of “Opening”, with that characteristic incessant blasting drum beneath hoarse screams in Sloan’s middle range and guitars a bit more static than in other places. Standout “Luminous Jar” does this too more than once, and it’s a hideous grin that transitions seamlessly from the murderous scowl of the pound-your-head-in death metal brutality around it.
It’s remarkable how much mileage these guys can get out of a few concepts. Take “Black Light Upon Us”, which stretches what is essentially three musical ideas out over nearly eight minutes. After an ambient opening they float in oppressive horrifying blackened cosmic doom for a while, which leads to a monstrously slow riff that repeats for minutes while Sloan’s cavernous growls fill the empty space. Then the final stretch of the song is built on one of my favorite underused rhythmic concepts in Alan Cadman’s drums: a deliberate, maddening circular pattern where each successive beat is packed with more and more hits, repeated over and over again, each time a more devastating flurry of punishment. That’s the whole 7:45 of the song: ambience at the beginning and end and just three simple concepts between, and yet it’s not a tiresome listen at all. Not every song on the album is quite as tightly written—“Perverse Entity” has much more packed into less than four minutes, for example—but the concept of grinding repetition of good, solid material rather than unnecessary development is central to the band’s harsh aesthetic.
Notable moments on Ascetic Reflection are plentiful, though some of them just left me wanting more. The brief old friend appearance of Cale Schmidt’s Steeve Hurdle-esque bellows at the end of intro track “Slouching Towards Gomorrah” is a wonderful touch, but a dangerous thing to dangle in front of someone who loves bands like Replicant as much as I do. I would also kill for more solos and lead-type work from Fischer. When he peels off the way he does in “Perverse Entity” and “Opening the Passage” with that screaming wet-saw-through-stone tone it’s caustic enough to liquify skin like acid, but it only happens those two times! I’ll admit, though, that essentially ending the album with the “Opening” solo with massive roars beneath it is probably more effective when it’s one of only a couple. Speaking of essentially ending the album, final track “Inauspicious Prayer” is a bit of an odd one, like a dark meditation with its brooding lugubrious chords. It never really feels like it gets anywhere despite not presenting like an outro; my ears hear it like the opening of a lengthy track that just never arrives at its main body.
THE BOTTOM LINE
If you’re looking for some harsh, dissonant, visceral death metal to help fill the void in your soul, look no further. Ascetic Reflection deepens the distinct niche Altars fills in an area of the subgenre also occupied by Ulcerate, Replicant, and Artificial Brain, and if you dig bands like that (who doesn’t?) then you should give this one a spin on July 8.