Talk about consistency! Saturnus play a type of gothic-tinged doom death not a million miles away from what Draconian and Swallow the Sun have done, but by and large, these great Danes steer the ship closer to funeral doom while also sprinkling in elements of 80s goth-rock. Their Paradise Belongs to You and Martrye albums are considered minor doom classics, and at least to me, Martyre had a really special energy and a true sense of sadness, loss and grief. I considered them a part of metal history since they’ve been inactive since 2006, but I’m more than happy to see them resurrected and back in the game with Saturn in Ascension and continuing in the same solid form as before. While some doom bands are capable of playing slow and making it feel heavy, Saturnus always excelled at making the slow music actually feel doomy, sad, melancholy and grim, much in the way My Dying Bride could. In fact, they may provide the best frame of reference, though I think Saturnus can be more compelling at their best that MDB can. Their approach always included burying the listener in a cold grave filled with slow, beautifully haunted riffs and leads, while Thomas Akim Gronbaek Jensen uses his super low-register grunts and gurgles to provide a sense of monolithic darkness. Nothing much has changed after their six-year layoff and all the classic elements of the sound are here. The songs are long, the vibe is forlorn and there’s just enough gothic pomp to add class and polish to the proceedings. Not quite a perfect comeback and few songs have issues, but overall this is in keeping with the consistently beautiful and glum material these chaps are known for.
As with past material, opener “Litany of Rain” uses soft, ethereal female choirs to lead into the big doom riffs. Once these begin, they might as well post “Abandon all hope, yea who enter” and be done with it. The leads are sad as all hell but crushingly beautiful too. The pace is slow as molasses, but it doesn’t exactly feel like funeral doom (though it’s damn close). Jensen’s sub-basement gurgles are mostly indecipherable, but when teamed with riffs like these, they still has a huge impact. The solos are quite somber and enchanting, the symphonic ghost choirs drift in and out and Jensen shifts to his soft, “poetry reading” voice at times. All this ensures the nearly ten minute journey goes by quicker than one would expect. This is the kind of doom song you just give in to and let it carry you along the river of consciousness like the poor dead lady on the cover of their Martrye opus. “Wind Torn” shambles along in much the same way, but features even more “crying in your hands” guitar-work that aches with despair, longing and raw human need (seriously, I need a hug now).
Taking it to a whole new level of poignant human misery, “A Lonely Passage” forgoes the death vox for Jensen’s plaintive, spoken-word reflections on a man’s emotional and spiritual exhaustion and losing the will to keep struggling against the tide of life. When he keeps repeating “I’m so tired,” it’s depressive on the same level as the last Woods of Ypres album, and that’s really saying something. When the female vocals come in toward the end of the song, they’re nearly enough to bring metal tears to the eye of Steel Druhm.
Saturnus wisely shakes things up a bit at this point with the much more aggressive and rocked out pace of “A Father’s Providence” which is steeped in 80’s goth-rock like Fields of Nephilim and the death-rock of bands like Heavenwood. The mood is way more upbeat and the keyboards lock in with the riffs in a hooky way like the better Paradise Lost and Dark the Suns material.
As great of a start as Saturn in Ascension gets, the wheels do start to come off a bit on the back-end. “Mourning Sun” is very long, but suffers from weaker riffing and fewer interesting dynamics, therefore it drags quite a bit. “Call of the Raven Moon” is another spoken-word piece, but this time it feels pretentious and uninspired. It’s a the classic “skippable track.” luckily, things do get back in the groove with “Forest of Insomnia” (especially the somber soloing from 7:25 forward) and the uber trance-like drone of “Between.”
As with most doom acts, the success of the material is heavily connected to the quality and quantity of good riffs and appropriately mood killing atmosphere. Rune Stiassny does his usual fine work here and his playing is at the top of the doom food chain. Whether it’s a main riff that makes all joy bleed from your soul, or a solo that briefly allows light and hope into the void, Rune executes his role with a craftsman’s precision. While Jensen is a limited vocalist and can’t sing in any real way, his transitions from mega death roar to soft speaking usually works well. Sure, carrying a few clean sung verses would be pretty nice too, but I’m used to his style and enjoy it (except when he overdoes the poetry-slam voice, which he kinda does at times here).
Aside from the songs that aren’t quite up to muster, this is also their least diverse release and I feel they should have included more change-ups in tempo across the album. When things are this slow and this depressive, the fatigue point hits around 30 minutes. Including more of the goth-rock liveliness seen on “A Father’s Providence” would act as a brief refresher before being waterboarded with despair again. Without it, this becomes an arduous listen for one sitting and man, don’t spin this if you’re already hurting or we’ll have more “metal causes suicide” bullshit cluttering up the works.
Overall, Saturn in Ascension is a successful return for one of doom’s better, if lesser known, champions. If you love to wallow in the mire of despair and enjoy embracing tragedy, this is your new blushing (and dying) bride and/or groom. If they trimmed off a song or two, it might have been a runner-up on my impending “Best of 2012″ list. I’m happy to see Saturnus back on the scene and for those who feel life is just too sunny and happy, sorrow has returned.