Once upon a time, metal acts – the early ones at least – skirted around the issue of Satanism. “Are they for real?” “Are they not?” “Can’t you just like goats and pentagrams without someone thinking of the children anymore?” But that shit curved back on itself like a funhouse mirror. In no time at all, every band, be they black, death, or retro pop, were sacrificing small animals and pilfering scented candles from their mom’s bathroom, and, in so doing, killed the shtick wholesale. Those same blasphemous symbols that once declared you were in league with Satan lost their oomph when they could be purchased on discount tee shirts at Walmart. So what are we to make of Abhor? Occulta Religio marks the Italian vets’ seventh entry and wouldn’t you know it, they’re still wicked into the whole occult get-down. Uncle Samael up there wants you to get in on the fun, but is the Satan Squad too played out to be worthwhile in 2018?
Somehow, no. Occulta Religio is truly music to summon the beast to. Shrouded in incense and secrecy and ever deliberate, “Elemental Conjuring,” “Fons Malorum,” and each successive track lay down a quality mix of rumbling bass, lush doomy rhythms, perfectly treated organs, and emcee Ulfhedhnir’s measured guidance. Mid-tempo black can easily be a chore if done incorrectly (or even correctly, truthfully). Abhor avoid this by blackening evocative doom stylings reminiscent of Black Sabbath and mixing them with the high-concept sell job that Ghost has been profiting off of for the last few years. They commit to the motif wholly, transcending the mere lip service that qualifies as Satanism nowadays. These guys are in it to sin it… but that comes at the cost of their momentum.
Initially I thought opener “Elemental Conjuring” quite the odd duckling, waffling between straightforward intro and full-fledged entry. Its opening riff is tempered but direct and as the drums build, Abhor appear ready to sweep you away under the cloak of incense and mysticism provided by the organ textures and Ulfhedhnir’s creeping croaks. However, the momentum of “Elemental Conjuring” quickly dissipates as “Fons Malorum” begins the album proper with a very similar approach, just played out longer. Tracks live and die in this isolation, and the record feels impervious to build or deviation as a result. Too often the proceedings are similar on the whole but detached from any individual identity. Excepting the rare occasions where a momentary burst of still-restrained adrenaline shines through, like on “Demons Forged from the Smoke” and “Exemplum Satanicus,” they rarely throttle up. The Satanic love affair is one-sided; the big guy isn’t standing outside with a stereo above his head, guiding the record back on track with a loving taste of his vicious malevolence. The punch in the face desperately needed to balance the occult intonations is conspicuously absent. Most of the time, it’s too easy to slip through the cracks and lose minutes at a time while the music putters along.
Occulta Religio is all about ambiance, and Abhor play their hand masterfully when it comes to stitching their throwback tones, their malicious vocal presence, and their control of tempo into a lumbering monster with intents on your soul. So it should come as no surprise that the production is similarly solid. It’s a good thing too. Any distraction from the meticulous work done by Domine Saevum Graven and Kvasir on the axes would pull on a thread that could unravel the entirety of the work. Substandard backing could strand both organist Leonardo Lonnerbach and Ulfhedhnir on an island. Instead, the whole thing comes together as well as it realistically could have.
I like my black metal fast and I like my black metal stuffed with riffs until they’re leaking from every orifice. Abhor ticks off neither of those boxes, and yet I can’t bring myself to drop the hammer. To the contrary, Occulta Religio has grown on me. I rolled my eyes at the concept, but thanks to dedicated construction honed almost to a fault and Abhor‘s decades of experience, it actually works. The record needs spontaneity (and more riffs, please Luci Goosie, more riffs), but its flaws don’t condemn it in totality. Abhor throw themselves into their offering completely, following their little black-as-coal hearts to the ends of Hell. In spite of the modern day ridiculousness of the schtick, I can respect that.