I created my moniker out of a weird obsession with Akercocke. A close friend and I would muse over the lyrical and conceptual themes from Goat of Mendes, watch videos of the band being interviewed by Irish religious nuts, and generally make long-winded jokes over Jason Mendonca’s LinkedIn profile and his love for tweed and sophisticated exhibitionism. Beneath this was a love for the eclectic and unique extreme music that Akercocke crafted. Personally, their more progressive and experimental later releases stuck with me the most. In 2007 the London-based band disbanded, leaving behind an incredible discography. Now they’re back, ten years later, with their sixth album: Renaissance in Extremis. Mendonca and co. have discarded their tweed suits in favor of turtle necks and smart caps, discarded long curly hair and twisty mustaches for serious buzz cuts and stubble, and completely discarded – most shockingly – their sophisticated Satanism in favor of a more human focus on the harsh realities of day-to-day existence. What does this mean for the band? Have they sold out? Is this Akercocke’s St. Anger?
Renaissance In Extremis ramps up the experimental tendencies of Antichrist tenfold. It’s still extreme and certainly still Akercocke, yet their sound is channeled down vastly different avenues. It’s an eclectic melting pot of everything with a few ingredients standing out and showboating with typical panache and pomp. Technical thrash permeates the album, as do heavy doses of prog-rock, virtuouso guitar playing, and electronic gothica. Is it focused on one thing? No. Is it sloppy? Certainly not. Somehow Akercocke manage to integrate these elements with excellence.
Opener “Disappear” is a strong example of these merging features. The frilly licks and hyper-speed riffing of the opening look back to the late 80s before the bass-heavy noodling that Akercocke have mastered switches views to technical vistas. Then, time warping, we’re dragged into the realm of atmospheric gothica, reminiscent of “Leviathan,” as Mendonca sweetly croons above subtle interweaving melodies. Sweeps and mid-paced progressions slot courageously between these moments, jostling for space, before a death-metal Iron Maiden gallop sends the song to its end. It’s flamboyant, unrestrained, and pure Akercocke at their creative apex. This might rub some the wrong way; the wild and wacky nature of their sound – crowned by Jason Mendonca’s schizophrenic vocals, sometimes daft and off-putting, at other times powerful and dreamy – is an acquired taste. Much of the album follows this playful yet dark vibe. “Unbound By Sin” and “First To Leave The Funeral” are funhouses of technical and malevolent riffs, tasty sweeping solos, writhing mid-tones, scrumptious bass lines, and a furious looseness that sounds like jazz-fusion crushed in the pestle and mortar of a death-metal necromancer.
There are more than a handful of moments different from anything Akercocke have released before. The guitar melodies of “Insentience” spiral off one another with bombast, almost sounding like something from a Plini record. “Familiar Ghosts” is pure Akercocke dipped in freshness, encompassing violins, glitching electronic pulses, and sensual grooves aplenty. Four minutes in and the song transitions into what sounds like a futuristic drug-fueled nightmare where the main characters watch a hyper-death Voivod in ultra-neon. “One Chapter Closing For Another To Begin” is a sexy and strange wash of atmospheric tremolo broken up by sections of wobbling James Maynard Keenan-esque pensiveness. Mendonca’s cleans sound better than ever, a syrupy continuation of Antichrists’ sound, and his blackened snarls and rasps offer the ideal offset to this smoothness. However, the blackened snarls make a rarer appearance here, replaced instead by a bombastic and melodramatic shout that’s somewhat of a distracting drawback.
Each member shines through the record. Almost every performance is stand-out, virtuoso almost, even by Akercocke’s outrageous standards. Guitarist Paul Scanlan, returning following his departure after 2003’s Chronozon, nestles neatly next to expressive new bassist Nathanael Underwood and Voices drum maestro David Gray. Nothing demonstrates the tightness of the band like final track “A Particularly Cold September,” nearly ten-minutes of 70s-esque progressive rock and extreme metal. It’s the crowning glory of the album, floating through elements of acoustic Opeth, bittersweet Porcupine Tree, trumpet-laden King Crimson, and Devin Townsend heart wrenching grandeur.
I wanted Renaissance In Extremis to be as outrageous and creative as possible. It is. Some may miss the Satanism and the tighter black-metal crunch of Words That Go Unspoken and Chronozon, the Morbid Angel-isms of The Goat of Mendes and Rape Of The Bastard Nazarene, but I don’t. Some might say it’s too loose, lacks a conciseness and focus, and runs for too long. I’m outraged by these hypothetical complaints! I’ve listened to the album a lot, taking a day off to let the record stew, and it still excites me. Akercocke have retained their trademark sound yet managed to hone it and fire it through fresh vistas. With a wonderful production to boot – clear, crisp, and deep yet never plastic or too clean – Akercocke have hit gold. Renaissance In Extremis is fun and diverse whilst still being pensive and beautifully touching.