A church bell tolls, deep and portentous. The internationally accepted symbol for the start of a metal album.
Depending on where you’re up to with Primordial these days – which basically comes down to a heady mix of age, nationality, how closely you’ve savoured the last three or four albums and then Alan’s side projects- you’ll either view that as a heavy handed and somewhat tired cliche, or a statement of defiant traditionalism.
We knew this would be an album that would raise questions, not least because, as I’ve said before, it’s only really been the last two albums or so where awkward shifting in your seat moments of criticism have come the band’s way after a two decades of absolutely rightly earned acclaim.
The last album in particular left an open question: where next?
I’m heartened that the answer is ‘here’ – at least for the better part of ‘Exile…’.
I had imagined Primordial would slip into an elder statesmen role for this album, fusing more of ‘Lizzy and Horslips, or even the likes of Amorphis or Solstafir into their palette.
That they would invite in more straight rock stylings, befitting of men entering their mid 40s, and that we would all acknowledge it as the right and dutiful path.
That hasn’t really happened for the most part.
In fact the aggression of ‘Nail Their Tongues’ roundly blows that whole idea out of the water.
It wastes no time in getting into a valedictory blastbeat and bark that outdoes even the likes of ‘The Heretic’s Age’ in power.
Indeed before that, this track marks itself out as a superb opener, and easily one of the best tracks on here.
One notices immediately the beauty of the tone.
How the bass drum sounds vintage, slightly muffed, rounded, and fat. How the guitars dial back on the distortion for a gorgeous embers-warmth.
This production is absolutely, hands down superb. The similarity to Tribulation is of course noted, courtesy of producer Ola, but it must be said that Primordial’s outdoes it by leagues.
Alan is more gravelly than ever, audibly still up for it, driven as only he can be; but what this track shows, and what is shown by the album in toto is that this is truly Simon O’Laoghaire’s finest work.
The speed of that blastbeat, the power contained in its rolls… not just anyone can do that. And as we’ll return to, he has audibly put extra effort into making this one special.
’To Hell Or The Hangman’ was the first song aired, complete with its working mans’ porter and braces video, and immediately marked itself out as a departure not just aesthetically, but compositionally.
A single riff, played out to passionate intensity, ended with an almost Hawkwind lead lick, with a beautiful lyric set in more or less plain English (a large part of its appeal on a Primordial album these days, I shouldnt wonder) that gets right under the skin.
For me, it’s the album’s best track by a mile. Those sixteenths on the hi-hats are just pure rock ’n’ roll with no apologies.
‘Where Lie The Gods’ though, feels slightly slovenly.
It is a step back in time as far as Primordial are concerned. Though Alan’s falsetto is absolutely superb when he belts out those massive lines, the actual song isn’t much of anything.
The Bathory-esque final segment, with its subtle Valhalla choirs in the background, is rousing once or twice, but fundamentally dull.
Who, I have to ask, is this for? It sits very badly with the atmosphere and approach of the track bofore it, and feels badly lumpen.
The title track opens in a manner similar to much of ‘Redeption At The Puritans Hand’, and lyrically too its where we take the deep dive back into Alan’s touchstone fascinations: nationhood, civilization, religious iconography, schism, nobility, politic, memory.
Bear with me here a moment while I put a suggestion.
Would it be better if there were some Chinese walls around Alan’s side projects, vis a vis his day job?
I ask because much of this stuff seems better suited nowadays to Dread Sovereign and to a lesser extent Blood Revolt, rather than Primrodial – even if those have been Primordial’s core themes for ages also.
I just dont know anymore where one ends and the other begins.
Part of the problem too is that this album has no anthem – or at least not as such. None that’s clear at this point in time anyway.
There are no fighting men. No coffin ships. No Rome to burn. No God among the Godless.
Now, perhaps Primordial anthems were becoming a format in themselves. Perhaps we need an album that enforces deep and lenghty listening.
But I’d still have liked one. And it would have made what now seem over-familiar lyrical tropes a shade more digestible.
For all that though, the almost Isis inspired ending to ‘Exile’ is beautiful and vast. Alan’s lyrics here are straight out of his usual big book, but the falsetto over that double bass brooks no argument. It’s fantastic.
Many on the forum have marked out ‘Upon Our Spiritual Deathbed’ as a favourite. Leaving aside its quaint nod to Elvis Costello, it does hark pleasantly to the ‘Spirit The Earth Aflame’ era.
I guess by the end it has a little ‘Heathen Tribes’ about it as well.
‘Stolen Years’ provides a moment of reflection, but not much else. I’m not entirely sure about what its supposed to do other than provide the backing for ‘Sunken Lungs’ to clatter in after it.
And what a clatter!
Again, this is Simon’s voice coming through those tinkling, slithering cymbals.
The beat is a pure homage to Brian Downey, and it is a song in which the beat is All.
And then, rounding out, ‘Last Call’ is a distinctly Doomed affair, enlivened greatly by Alan’s passionate delivery.
You get the sense that like any good franchise, they’re leaving their options open with this one, should it end up being the coda on a career or merely just an era.
Or perhaps I’m reading far too much into it. Probably. And in any case, its neither my place nor anyone else’s to be making dark allusions to what a band who’ve paid such considerable dues choose to do.
Eagle eyed readers will have totted up three and a half great songs noted in this review, set against the album’s total of eight.
Is that enough from a Primordial?
Or, more simply, has tiredness now set in?
It’s a hard one to answer, because no matter what they do, they’re fundamentally a great band by any outside measure or comparison.
‘Nail Their Tongues’ and ‘Hell Or The Hangman’ are easily amongst their best ever. I could have done with much more of both: two tracks that crackle with dynamic, building on the past while giving tantalizing nods to the future.
Other offerings however tread water.
So far I’ve heard varied opinions (like all the best bands) – and indeed it’s been divisive. For some its a treat, especially on vinyl.
For others, like one especially scabrous texter, people only want to like it because its Primordial . To me, that’s a defence in itself. But I get the point.
It isn’t their best, and it doesnt have an anthem or two to grab. But it does bust them out of a mould musically, if not lyrically.
Simons drumming, Alan’s singing and the production are all a joy.
Musically though – yes, it must be said, quality is not in quantity.
But I like it – alot – and those quality moments are ascendent.
And anyway, questions around Primordial’s quality are relative only to themselves.
So form your own judgement. It sounds beautiful, its best moments are sublime, and though its not among their greatest, it’s a solid addition to the canon.
3.9 / 5 – Earl Grey ::: 05/14/18