In their first two albums, Altarage began a career—and a successful one at that—by walking just a few steps behind Portal. Sure, Portal’s most avant-garde ideas never made it into Nihl or Endinghent, but the Australians’ influence on Altarage has always been as clear as either band’s music was murky. Despite their challenges in originality, these Spaniards gained ground fast between Nihl and Endinghent. If they kept that pace up, I expected the next album to be nipping at Ion’s heels. But The Approaching Roar lies by understatement.
Altarage are no longer coming up behind Portal; they’re neck and neck, insofar as either of their shambling masses can be considered cephalized. Just a year after the impressive Endinghent, The Approaching Roar projects Altarage’s spelean shadow at a greater scale than ever before, resolving each jagged edge in the penumbral haze growing around its black core. The danger obvious in The Approaching Roar comes not only from its impenetrable sound, where rhythm and pitch undermine each other, or from its palpable violence, but from its intelligence. This enemy can outsmart you. It’s simultaneously chasing you yet two steps ahead, preparing an attack you could never hope to foresee.
Emerging from the same cavernous howls and perpetual pummeling that you might find on an Abyssal record, the points that The Approaching Roar collects around are moments that leave the listener almost transfixed. “Urn” opens with oozing bass notes allowed to ring until they shake out into almost warbling tones before ditching the Boris aesthetic for steaming death-doom. Just after a false ending, a clever melodic structure feints towards the wrong rhythm,1 briefly stunning the listener before the song continues. Later, “Inhabitant” balances a chugged riff with an atonal tremolo lead à la Meshuggah’s Catch Thirtythree. The amplifier buzz in the gaps? That’s Altarage’s touch. In an even greater gap, “Chaworos Sephelln” suddenly stops. A whine. A creak. A roar. The drums explode into a groove that constricts two and three and four into seven, all numbers pounding with the same ritual menace.
Not a song on The Approaching Roar lacks interest, detail, drama, or intent. Altarage’s writing has advanced to the point where, rather than approximating the sound of Portal or Abyssal, they are adding their own novel rhythms and ideas. “Freqs” and “Veil of Transcendence” crowned great albums with ambitious polytempi. Here, strange rhythmic tricks complete “Urn” and “Werbuild.” It’s not just the presence of these structures but the way each composition is structured to highlight them that makes The Approaching Roar so effective. While many of the album’s riffs are close to impossible to parse, the band use these concrete blocks of noise to create patterns that reveal themselves over an entire song rather than a few bars. Though you’ll never know which direction the maze turns in next, look back and you can see your footprints spelling out a threat.
Portal and Abyssal created shapes like this, and now it is time for the light to shine behind Altarage’s mass. Another dismal, strange work has arrived to sit alongside albums like Ion and Antikastaseis in the fold of sound that straddles dimensions. The fact that Altarage came up with—and executed—so many exceptional ideas in a year’s time is simply stunning. The album’s polish is impressive as well, feeling both ghastly and organic. It resolves tiny details like guitar strings being unmuted just before every hit in the end of “Inhabitant” just as well as it articulates the heaving walls of sound in “Knowledge.” There’s much more to say, but the best way to appreciate this record is, of course, to suffer it yourself. The Approaching Roar is the first great metal record of 2019 and the greatest achievement yet of a band that’s racking them up at an alarming rate.
- Brief music-analytic footnovel: This riff, with the first bar in 6/8 and the second in 8/8, tricks you into expecting the second bar to be in 7/8 by landing on the root on beat 7. Having returned to the root you expect the riff to cycle again, but instead there’s another beat descending another half step down. Because the entire riff is 8th notes, it has a regular pulse, making it easy for the melody to lead you to expect odd time (thirteen 8th notes long). Instead, it tags the last 8th note on to round out the second bar, making the second bar sound like it’s in odd time when it’s basically in 4/4. ↩