If you’re like me (and you should be, because come on) instrumental metal has never gripped you deeply. While Pelican or Scale the Summit are fine now and then, typically the music just induces a pleasantly reflective mood, with occasional thoughts of “hey, that’s pretty” or “well, that’s a neat riff.” No vocals means no human edge, no lyrics, no deep message – but beyond that, climaxes are sometimes harder to differentiate, with some songs cruising along with no real apex (I know they’re not metal, but Mogwai, for example, write some of the best instrumental music that goes absolutely nowhere). Fortunately, Arizona-based duo Tempel seem to recognize this issue and aim to avoid it on sophomore album, The Moon Lit Our Path.
Quick recap: Tempel formed in 2003 and released their debut On the Steps of the Temple in 2012, re-released by Prosthetic last year. Like Steps, Moon is just as confounding to categorize. Opener “Carvings in the Door” will make you believe you’re in for a Black Tusk-via-post-metal experiment, with a quick set of rousing sludge riffs giving way to layered, sustained notes in the midsection. Later songs add black metal flair, with mid-album highlight “Descending into the Labryinth” opening with a riff that’s more Enslaved than Pelican, while parts of closer “Dawn Breaks Over the Ruins” wouldn’t be out of place on a Drudkh record. As Moon progresses, things grow more layered and lush, with the album’s second half introducing folksy-sounding acoustic interludes and electric/acoustic harmonization, recalling, of all things, Agalloch’s The Mantle.
Even with this stylistic blending, Tempel never sound uncomfortable or disjointed – but more importantly, they know how to write a good climax. Aforementioned “Descending” offers the best example, wavering for nearly 12 minutes between tender acoustic sections and authoritative progressions, before culminating in a simple mid-paced riff that sounds like something both grand and terrible is about to happen – the final ascent up the temple steps to claim a prized golden artifact, perhaps. Likewise, “Tomb of the Ancients” finishes with fluttering melodies as a counterpoint to its earlier groovy upheaval. Unlike other vocal-less bands, Tempel never get too atmospheric or proggy, preferring to let their low-register riffs speak for themselves with the inevitable sweet, colorful leads serving as climatic payoff.
Admittedly, this does hurt the band a bit – while there’s a general vibe of occult mystery about Moon, the soundscapes aren’t as intensely atmospheric as I’d like – but the real issue is the uneven quality. While no song or section is bad, there are plenty of riffs and ideas that do little more than move things forward. Interestingly, Moon actually gets better as it goes, with aforementioned opener “Carvings” and the follow-up title track offering noticeably fewer highlights than the album’s final three tracks. For all the mildly groovy, chugging riffs, Tempel are simply much more compelling when they let loose and explore, as exemplified in Moon’s superior second half. At over 52 minutes, there remains a lot of material to sit through, and while the good moments are pretty damn good – aforementioned closer “Dawn” offers some mesmerizing guitarwork – there’s also a lot of nondescript and shrugworthy riffs.
Fortunately, the production offers both a large dynamic range and a fat, beefy guitar tone that perfectly matches the character of the bassy guitar-work. While modern-sounding, there’s just enough grit to avoid feeling sterile, with those oinking pig-fart riffs and soaring melodies ringing clear and proud even as the sonic layers add up. Enough to bring me back? Probably, but just for a song or two. Tempel do have a good thing going, but a bit more brevity (does every song need to be ten minutes or longer?) and noteworthy riffing would help. If you’re interested in tightly performed yet sludgy instrumentals, or offended because all your friends still call Pelican “girlfriend metal,” Tempel may be worth a shot – for the rest, give “Descending” or “Dawn” a listen and go from there.