Akercocke | ‘Renaissance In Extremis’
Oh, they are a spicy lot, old Akercocke.
Forever throwing the cat among the pigeons, what with dressing how you dont like them to and all that.
But those excitable years are long gone, an eight year hiatus having seen off the last excesses of tweed jackets and stately home photoshoots.
Rumblings of a return raised eyebrows with words like ‘positivity’.
Then Jason Mendonca himself gave us the inside track when we talked to him in the Metal Insight Podcast 32, telling us that the new album would have myriad influences extending even to high priestess Siouxsie Sioux.
So it’s hardly going to shock you to say that this is an album that will divide opinion.
What remains after the opinion has been divided however is what’s interesting. And what remains?
Well, a hundred writhing earworms – unforgettable passages and riffs that whether you hate it or love it, are hard to expel from your earlobes.
Path Less Travelled
For many this is going to be a toss up.
Do you accept a slightly thinner guitar tone, deliberately needier vocal, and more discursive songwriting for the greater good – or do you just want the meaty Bacchanalia of the older albums?
What’s heartening, to me at least, is that many already seem to be coming down on the path of development.
Which is good. Because it reflects the soul searching, and soul baring, that’s gone into this new path-less-travelled for the band.
‘Disappear’ opens as a showcase of all these new fangles. We have that initially thinner sounding guitar, and indeed a more fluid roving bass courtesy of Dam’s (or Damim I should say) Nathaniel Underwood.
The surprise of it is its old school riffing style; metallic and straight, rather than a lot of detuned Suffocation style chunkety chunk.
Then what Mike Oldfield would have called, in clipped English, “Two slightly… distorted guitars.” To wit, something that sounds closer to a Slint album. More on that later.
What do we think of all this?
Well, the spacious and liminal feel, and the sort of supplication or appeal undertaken by the vocals will be much at odds with expectations.
But its a perfectly developed song, progressing to rage, blast and, most impressively, a final prog rock chordal bashout that harks directly to Focus and King Crimson’s ‘Red’.
Go on, tell me it doesn’t.
The album’s funny because it starts in this new ponderous frame, accelerates into the rages of old for the middle, then returns to the lofty airs again to close out.
And something I can see being a big bother to folk is the next one up, “Unbound By Sin”. This is where the Slint thing comes back.
That crispy guitar with the little harmonics seems – even now a hundred spins later – too thin for Akercocke.
That mightn’t be a problem had the vocals been different. I get the positivitist message because I get where it comes from, and I empathise, big time. But there’s just something about
Its been too long / too long away / achieve your goals… and understand
that doesnt quite work.
But it’s a minor quirk. Because the absolute heavy metal spirit of the rest of the track is insanely good.
And, like Carcass, they have that wonderful knack of doing the best thing only once. Like at the end of this track, where they do some clean plucked guitar over a surging blastbeat that is straight out of Lyketha Aflame.
‘Insentience’ is simply majestic – Jason’s slightly different phlegmy sung shout being new to these ears, and highly effective.
Plus, that bass!
What a track, with it’s peach and mauve sunset legato solo section reminiscent of Frank Gambale – absolutely wonderful.
Rototoms abound all over this album, which can usually only mean one thing: David Gray is about to unleash a blast.
We’re used to this of course, but Christ, he’s consistent. ‘First To Leave The Funeral’ is, I guess, closest to the material of old, right back to the debut.
Those windchime sounds in it are spectral: spellcasting 1,2,3, genius stuff.
Speaking of the debut, remember how at the time we all creamed it over the drum ‘n’ bass influences?
Well clap your ears around ‘Familiar Ghosts’, whose drums, and more pertinently bass, hark directly back to this classic of the genre.
Another influence looming larger over this album than those prior is Cynic: the sixteenth beat stuff they made their own, as well as those chords and that gorgeous legato comes out in ‘A Final Glance Before Departing’.
Again, in this fierce middling of the album, it’s one of the more aggressive numbers. And yet in a classic metal, steely kind of way.
I wish I could stop referencing other bands because this is Akercocke’s great record. But it’s necessary just to show the breadth of sounds that this album has absorbed, and hence how different it is from those before.
Various ascendant black metal tonalities from Enslaved to Agalloch are summoned in ‘One Chapter…’, while a sort of Ihsahn-esque horn section is also allowed in, which come the albums close also recall even David Sylvian.
In fact the more I think about it, Ihsahn is about the closest comparator for the amount of creativity going on in here, and his ‘Arktis’ and ‘Eremita’ albums probably provide a decent starting point for guaging this one.
So what to make of this?
Well, there are what we might call transitional difficulties.
I do flinch a little with those particular sections of ‘Unbound’ and ‘Insentience’ that have the thinner, meandering guitars and more imploring vocal sections; they’re brief, and the metal pounding is never far away, but they certainly take some getting used to, no matter the bravery of the soul baring.
Most times that cool and important and revered bands put out new albums that challenge with their leftfield take, I end up saying something like ‘the truth is somewhere in the middle’ or ‘though the sound is different its emphatically them’ or something.
But let’s just tell it like it is, shall we.
This one is a massive, throbbing curveball. It is very different and takes a lot of getting used to.
But so what.
The band have grown, and wonderfully so. The variety of their influences are now allowed to bloom all over this record, particularly in the lead guitar sense (nb: a late paean to Flying In A Blue Dream, The Sixteen Men Of Tain, Red, Erotic Cakes, etc, etc).
It’s just delectable, indulgent and immersive extreme metal and then not extreme metal.
Akercocke are patently brilliant and always have been; it’s just that this one is probably the most they’ve ever had the license to just be themselves instead of the charicatures they made.
4.7 / 5 – Earl Grey ::: 07/09/17