Written by Swatty
Exhumed, Reviewed, Renewed is a column where writers may wax poetic about albums from ANY time. Not just 2021 as per the rest of the website.
Dirge – Lost Empyrean
Atmospheric post-sludge from Paris, France
via Debemur Morti Productions
The art of the disconnect.
Music at large is the great equalizer. So many of us choose to engage in it to find either that spiritual kinship in the tones to release whatever torrents of emotion we are drowning in, or as a vehicle to escape the gravity of our own reality. To be fair, there are also many of us that put something on to supplement whatever activity we are lost in – background music as it were. But to find something that resonates so true to the very essence of our being while also transporting us somewhere far away from the daily trials and tribulations of our existence is a special kind of rarity. Indeed, the art of the disconnect is something both magical and therapeutic and when that divine ether is tapped so meticulously as to craft a representation in our own physical realm, it is a very remarkable thing to behold. Dirge are one of the few in a small elite company to have done it.
Dirge (1994-2019) were a French sludge/post-metal band that started off as a Godflesh-influenced industrial metal act in 1994. However, it didn’t take long for them to spread their (lead) wings and morph into one of the better atmospheric sludge acts most folks have never heard of. By the time of 2000’s Blight And Vision Under A Faded Sun they had their foot firmly on the accelerator dismally headed to more atmospheric pastures. It wasn’t until 2007 with their masterful double-album Wings Of Lead Over Dormant Seas that vaulted them into the more public consciousness through a glowing review in Terrorizer magazine. Unfortunately for them, they were victims of the great Neur-Isis boom of the early to mid-aughts and thusly were unfairly lumped together w/ that collapsing subgenre. They have repeatedly said they had no desire to emulate the apocalyptic sonic musings of Neurosis and their ilk and if one actually listens to what they are trying to say with their music, it is quite easy to believe them. Since then they quietly released two more excellent albums (2011’s Elysian Magnetic Fields and 2014’s Hyperion) through their own Blight Records label as well as Debemur Morti. However, it wasn’t until 2018 that everything aligned in perfect synchronicity with the unleashing of their apex opus Lost Empyrean – and so we have reached the raison d’etre for this article.
A moment of reflection at the vanguard of destruction.
Lost Empyrean starts off very patiently with “Wingless Multitudes.” The band plays in unison from the very first bar with gentle palm mutes sharing time w/ a minor chord as the keys drone on in the background all held together with metronome-like cymbal hits. There is no need for protracted introductions here, rather just the band comfortably taking their time to lull the listener in their environs as the sonic textures are immediately defined. It is this expansive palette that immediately rouses as the band for the very first time have added focus on heft and clearer delineation of all the instruments involved. Eventually the rich toms start to propel the song forward before lurching into their signature style which defines the rest of the album: regimented percussion, huge but patient riffing and cosmic keyboards that keep the entire presentation from (almost) never touching ground. While each one of these elements are a star here in their own right, it is the deliberate placement of them in relationship with one another that impresses most. It is so apparent that every single note was fawned over in the compositional process in terms of counterpoint, weight and instrumentation. Take for example the climax at 4:00 where the melody jarringly shifts and builds to an immense moment allowing the keys to shimmer high in the mix while a riff surprises you by temporarily resolving on the subdominant. This is such an impactful moment and at this point you have already left the familiar surroundings of your visible world.
A creeping consternation as the end is recognized.
“Hosea 8:7” inversely is much more mobile and anxious – clearly needing to move the proceedings along as angular riffs and a really fluid and inventive bass line jumps in thirds. Eventually after some anxious palm muting the mood changes as those same riffs suddenly transform into something more wondrous through an almost whole-tone scale sound. Naturally, the keys once again provide a beautiful backdrop as harsh and clean vocals both interplay with one another. This shift from trepidation to wonder happens again at 2:31 and is much more emphatic with a couple of pick slides on the guitars. It should also be noted here that the guitar tone on this album and particular on this song is so crisp and massive. However it does not overpower the rest of the instruments and its darkened timbre combined with the mostly minor key leanings adds a heavy sense of melancholy. This is emotional music no doubt and it is meant to exorcise those dark and deep buried feelings we tend to avoid.
And so comes the flood, washing the earth clean.
Speaking of emotional, third track “Algid Troy” is one of the most moving pieces on here. After about a minute of building electronic ambience, the rest of the band kicks in with a funereal and crestfallen riff as tribal drums provide the percussion (think Jason Roeder of Neurosis but while on barbiturates and battling a bout with depression). This minor key passage is so gripping and the chords are allowed to resonate throughout the expanse and crash onto the shores of your psyche like waves from an impossibly vast and lifeless sea. This leads into next track “The Burden of Almost” which has a more pedestrian feel to it as is warranted from the emotional battering from the previous song. The riffing is muscular and incredibly doomy while harsh vocals weave their way through the destruction. Eventually the gaze turns inward as the song takes on a more reflective quality as it settles on a strong motif at 4:25 that continues to permutate ever so slightly until the song’s end.
A final stroll through the frozen peaks to gaze at all that is lost.
”Lost Empyrean” starts off with the sound of footfalls crunching snow as an ethereal melody is introduced through heavily processed guitars. By the time the rest of the band joins in we are presented with the most urgent tempo of the entire album (andante con moto) as the centerpiece melody of the song just oozes yearning in an act of total surrender. The effect is immediate and pronounced, compelling the listener to slowly headbang and reflect on all the precious things we have lost. It is the most accessible of all the tracks on Lost Empyrean and so it was the leadoff single for the album prior to its release. It really showcases Dirge’s ability to effortlessly create an earworm riff and impress with the perfect placement and timing of all the instruments. This entire vibe changes at 5:50 as an inventive circular riff is joined by crashing percussion and thick walls of destructive chords – this creates a dichotomous feeling of acceptance and sadness which leads into the brilliant penultimate track.
As existence unfurls a peaceful mix of resignation and sadness consumes.
In an album full of highlights, “A Sea Of Light” absolutely shines the brightest. Here the band is joined by Hichem Allaouchiche (Kanaan) for a tour-de-force performance concerning man’s destruction of the planet. He offers a bluesy ruminating style to complement the suffocating walls of melancholy that slowly but relentlessly close in. The hopelessness and resignation that this song exudes is so heavy and overwhelming it has a gravity all on its own. This is pathos that cuts so deep and steals the air from your lungs. The thing that Dirge does so masterfully here is knowing how to keep the listener in thrall as they are repeatedly hit with wave after wave of crushing despair. This isn’t technical music by any stretch of the imagination, but it is HUGE and naturally understands the language of the human condition.
Eventually this disconsolate vibe turns into a sad resignation – a realization of one’s complete powerlessness in the face of an apathetic force of destruction, especially with lyrics like these:
“We have tried another kind
We have tried a different way
Now a passion from the sky is coming
Down the ocean’s waves
Then the sea just turns to fire
And the true ones sail away
From the city shrouded blind”
As the bleak mood allows a sliver of light to break through the darkened canopy, the song eventually peaks towards the end with a powerful simple descending riff as Allaouchiche settles back into a bluesy style, reveling in the beauty and sorrow of the end while the fire consumes everything around him, and eventually even himself.
Floating above in the void as light implodes – erasing, rebuilding.
Final track ”Sarracenia” acts like an epilogue for the album, closing all threads while also adding a sense of peace that perhaps the end is not the end. It begins with a very simple and sludgy riff that builds before releasing in a beautiful major key passage supplemented by some rudimentary and spacey vocals. The melody continues to evolve and become more agitated before finally extinguishing itself in favor of the glorious closing section starting around the 4:30 mark. The song gives itself a reset here as it patiently reveals what’s to come for next couple of minutes, fragment by beautiful fragment. Once the guitars kick in full at 7:13 it is clear the song is still in a liminal space as the melody continues to alter. But liminal spaces are where Dirge thrive as is evidenced by the clever transition at 8:14 which allows the closing statement to flourish in an eruption of blinding light. The most impressive actor in this passage are the keys as they flicker and oscillate in the darkness getting brighter and brighter until you are enveloped by it. Though civilization may be gone and lost to history, the universe rebuilds and refashions in a stunning display of texture and color.
As previously stated in the opening paragraph, the art of the disconnect is a difficult craft to pull off. But when the compositional process is fawned over with this level of love and attention to detail, it simply transcends the normal listening experience. As such, the listener is treated to a lush and cinematic display whose only boundaries are the ones fashioned from imagination. Sadly, it would be their final statement as they disbanded the following year. Not much has been stated as to why, but to say they went out with a bang with Lost Empyrean would be an understatement. They left a swansong of such beauty and perfection that it is difficult to imagine how they could have possibly followed it up with another album. And we as the audience can only look at this masterwork with eternal gratitude and tread in the sea of light with delight and awe etched across our faces, radiant from the glow of the fast-approaching cleansing fire.