I will admit off the bat that I did not know what I was walking into with Ash Borer. They were a random pick, as our promo sheet is currently blacker than an Ad Reinhardt ten-part series on being born blind. I missed the boat on the so-called “Cascadian black metal” scene after several unsatisfying jaunts with Wolves in the Throne Room, but I’m down to see what all the hype is about. With their first full-length release since 2012’s Cold of Ages, Ash Borer may not suck me down the Cascadian rabbit hole completely, but The Irrepassable Gate will give longtime fans more of the convincing atmospheric black metal they crave.
It’s clear from the start that the four-year layoff has done very little to hinder Ash Borer’s abilities.1 The shrill, ominous melody that draws you through “The Irrepassable Gate” acts as a siren, broadcast from the backs of the monolithic bass and steady, monotonous drumbeat. Its clarion call acts as an intro, but unlike your standard scene-setter, there is no temptation to skip ahead to the meat. The raw direction acts as both foreboding gatekeeper and welcoming valet. It’s also a mark of purpose, lingering for over three minutes, while highlighting Ash Borer‘s shift toward constructing their atmospheres by simple yet effective means. Just as the opening begins to wear thin, the group takes the top off the defense with a furious selection of riffs that comes right out of the USBM owner’s manual. The guitar-work is neither complex nor particularly enticing alone, but the resplendent gravity of the full barrage juxtaposes the straightforward nature of the trem-picking and renders the riffs doubly effective as a light through the darkness. The song operates in a 12-minute circuit, eventually cooling to seething whisper before reigniting briefly and fading away.
The main drawback of the album is not a tendency to bore, despite what the track length may suggest. Rather, Ash Borer place such weight in their compositions that the listener is prone to exhaustion. By the end of the album, I often feel suffocated, with looped listens vise-gripping my temples. The conspicuously absent keyboards may have helped mitigate this issue. While never prominent, they previously offered another level of discovery and depth and raised Ash Borer’s lighter moments. As such, the interludes on Gate fail to provide much relief. Stylistic variance seems to have taken a step back as well. Gate is a large departure from prior eclectic work, with drone influences kicked down to breather tracks “Lustration I” and “II,” and a punched up vocal presence distancing the record from Fell Voices comparisons. Likewise, no “Convict All Flesh” eye-openers here; “Grey Marrow” is as close as Ash Borer come to offering something outside the norm, but even that fails in direct comparison.
Still, Ash Borer succeed in the most telling of manners: they made Thanksgiving a tolerable experience. “Grey Marrow” is the most obvious success on the album and I reached for it regularly over the last week. Stuck in traffic, at the grocery store, tuning out relatives, you name it. Scratchy, distant black metal vocals don’t typically do much for me, so I appreciate the newfound focus on incorporating K’s cryptic screams into the fold. He and axemates A and R often operate as a single unit, their success intertwined with how well their riffs cut through the atmosphere they’ve created for themselves. They often get a thumbs up, but not every riff is a winner and the monotonous nature of the genre does not hide flaws well.
It feels as if Ash Borer are a band in transition, despite their success. The Irrepassable Gate somewhat steps away from what put the band on the map, stretching Cascadian atmospherics into the riff-prominence of Mgła and Yellow Eyes while simultaneously foregoing the aesthetics seen in Wolves in the Throne Room or Skagos. As a result, poking through every layer of this album may not provide the constant illumination the way Ash Borer‘s previous work does. But the devil does not lie in the details, rather in the smothering ambiance that the composition uses to tighten its tendrils around your throat and choke your life away. I can get the hype, and though I’m not on board just yet, maybe I’ll hop on the next time Ash Borer rumble through the station.