Sunday, March 15, 2015

Ten of the best metal albums of all time - Part VI: Revenant - Prophecies of a Dying World

If I was going to attempt to recreate the atmosphere of the writings of H. P. Lovecraft in music I would probably go for some sort of blackened sludge metal with really downtuned guitars and a really slow tempo, with Portal-like guitar-bend swirls and an array of growls, snarls, hisses and moans for that slimey, tentacle-y sort of feel. And it would probably be godawful and completely miss the mark. But luckily that wouldn't be necessary, because the Lovecraft kind of atmosphere has already been captured perfectly in metal all the way back in 1991 by a "simple" death/thrash band with no need for any such gimmicks as the ones my often wandering mind concocted in the opening sentence.

This album is another fine example of a band doing everything right. I don't know how much creating a metal soundtrack to Lovecraft's stories is actually something the band set out to do, or how much this idea was attached to them in hindsight due to the nature of their lyrics and their art. However, whether it was the ultimate goal or a side-effect of the songwriting process, the band succeeded perfectly at creating the perfect kind of atmosphere for the subject matter. This is indeed accomplished not through the use of atmospheric gimmicks many modern bands would likely go for (and I know a few bands that do), but with beautiful subtlety. The focus is on creating an intense and riff-heavy death/thrash album, steamrolling it with atmospheric elements would only take away from that. Instead, the dark feel is interwoven into the structures with the utmost care and intricacy.

Even without the immersing atmosphere, Prophecies of a Dying World stands as a masterpiece in itself. The Revenant approach to death/thrash metal is one of a kind, even while using ingredients common around the time it was created. In its ferocity and aggression, as well as its darkness, a lot of parallels to death/thrash pioneers Possessed come to mind. There's a certain dedication to relentless force common to both artists. Pummeling rhythm guitars buzzsaw away over blisteringly fast-paced percussion while razor-sharp lead guitars perform the audial equivalent of cutting through flesh. All this is maintained at a very high level of quality of riffwriting. There's not a single weak spot in the riff department throughout the entirety of the album, everything maintains a maximum level of ferocity, aggression, darkness, but also catchiness as well as intelligence. Especially the latter two are rarely combined so seamlessly, with the vast majority of bands choosing to sacrifice one in favour of the other. The riffing on this album is about as top notch as you can get in the style of death/thrash metal, but it doesn't end there.

All-obliterating Possessed-like qualities are only one major element at work here. Another is an emphasis on dynamics that was popularised in thrash metal in the late 80s by many of the most famous bands, such as Slayer (on South of Heaven) or Metallica (on ...And Justice for All). And it is a common rule is metal that what works for more mainstream artists, more underground artists will hone to perfection. Revenant on this album are pretty much as close to perfection in the field of dynamics in thrash as anyone can be. And this is really what sets them apart from more "regular", Possessed-style of death/thrash. It doesn't just bludgeon the listener. It takes the listener on a journey through a dark, multi-layered, multi-faceted world, through constant changes in riffs, tempos and arrangements. All this without losing coherency for a second. They don't just go berserk, it is more akin to following a berserker through the numerous points in time and space and ups and downs of his life. Except in Revenant's case the berserker is not literally a Norse warrior on psychoactive drugs, but some bizarre, dark, slimey, unspeakable Lovecraftian creature from one of the higher dimensions of horror.

The subtle but intense otherworldly atmosphere comes in part from the perfect combination of pummeling Possessed-style ferocity with a sense of narrative dynamics approaching progressive forms of music. But on top of this backbone, the remaining ingredients really drive the point home, really define this music as something you would hear inside your head if you ended up inside an H. P. Lovecraft story. The vocals certainly are a big factor in aiding this type of atmosphere that just does not seem right in this world. They, too, bear resemblences to Possessed, but have a much darker quality to them, as if teleported into our dimension from a world in which fear is the only reality. It is really hard to describe on paper, it is a unique sense of paranoia they carry with them the more you immerse yourself in them. The spoken parts are the icing on a cake of subterranean sludge here. Simply perfect in the context of this album's atmosphere. But what drives both styles of vocals to maximum efficiency is the sheer quality of the lyrics. Analysing poetry was never my strongest points, and I advise you to simply read, or much better hear, them for yourself. There's simply such a schizophrenic, otherworldly quality to them that they suck you straight out of our world, our normal world, into a world of absolute fear and paranoia. It's humbling, even terrifying, but also absolutely satisfying for any connoisseur of dark literature.

All in all this is album is magnificent, and absolutely essential for the collection of anyone who appreciates extreme metal - and metal in general - and H. P. Lovecraft and similar authors. It's relentlessly immersive, and suffocatingly dark, while at the same time invigoratingly catchy. One of the most perfect metal albums of all time.

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