Altars – Ascetic Reflection Review

Beyond its cover’s deceptively pastoral mountain scene, Altars offers something lurking underneath. On paper, the trio deals in a collision of dissonant death metal name-drops we’ve come to expect, and it would be easy to stop there. But we won’t, because there’s something else. Ascetic Reflection’s unique take settles in the negative spaces between lurching and punishing with clarity and nimbleness, allowing its meditative lurch to burrow into listeners’ skin. Holding mirrors of the self and the divine and the futility therein, the aptly named Ascetic Reflection deals in shredding pain. Ascending insane heights and basking in the heat of the murderous sun, and baptized in the sweeping waters of perdition, Altars is back with a vengeance.

Altars technically called it a day back in 2016, the 2013 one-and-done full-length a swan-song for the group. Paramnesia’s dissonant maelstrom a la Gorguts met the ears with relentless precision and hellish brutality, perking ears across the metalverse – only for the experiment to meet its premature end. Ascetic Reflection is a different beast entirely. Featuring longtime drummer Alan Cadman (also of StarGazer) and guitarist Lewis Fischer (also of Ignivomous), the x-factor of the reemerging Altars is vocalist and bassist Brendan Sloan. Renowned mastermind of the sinister Convulsing, he brings his own face of destruction in a death metal affair that is far from simple. While Paramnesia dealt in blasting punishment, the ominous Ascetic Reflection dwells in far more flagellating and meditative realms.

There is something fundamentally wrong with Altars in its newest iteration, not unlike a less blackened Convulsing’s Grievous or the ominous mutterings of Immolation’s Close to a World Below. While technically proficient in the Gorgutsian school in warped melodies and rhythms, injecting just enough Replicant groove presence and Our Place of Worship is Silence’s OSDM feel, it is all done with all tendrils pointed down. It falls prostrate before madness and embraces a distant scream with gnashing of teeth – a sense of eerie meditativeness coursing through every passage. Fischer’s riffs are perhaps most indicative, that while bludgeoning is a clear motive, the guitar tone is nearly painful, overwhelmingly razor-like paired with inherently dissonant riffs and unpredictable rhythms. Even plucking and atmospheric lulls feel neither restful nor placid throughout. Incorporating just enough Portal lurch to inject a distinctly squelching feel with the nearly jazz-like fluidity of Diskord, tracks like “Perverse Entity” and “Luminous Jar” are graced with a lurching chewing feeling, while “Opening the Passage” and “Ascetic Reflection” ride galloping momentum with warped punk beats aligned with tense menace. Spearheaded by Sloan’s abstract and self-flagellating sermons and built upon Cadman’s warped rhythms, Altars proves they can stand among dissonant death metal’s upper echelon.

While the trio’s straightforward death attack is enough to convince the naysayers, it isn’t until “Black Light Upon Us” and “Inauspicious Prayer” that we see Altars’ cards. Building upon a ritualistic percussion and maddening repetition, layers of dissonance and noise create a distinctly nightmarish maw that avoids the murky trappings of acts like Grave Upheaval or Altarage. Utilizing minimal tricks to enact its sinister agenda, they bask in clarity without sacrificing its crooked teeth. Layers are Altars’ game, and these tracks take full advantage, dueling guitars and counter-melodies colliding with noodling bass while fried-nerve rhythms are the only tether of sanity. All that being said, compared to similar offerings like Portal’s ION or those of Sloan’s mother project, Ascetic Reflection is loaded with replay value, thanks to its tasty grooves, touches of old-school aesthetic, and digestible track lengths. With each spin, listeners will peal back another layer like flayed skin, discovering another door to otherworldly environs to explore. While one might find the punk beats of “Opening the Passage” odd or the doom passages lacking heft in “Anhedonia,” Altars can do just about anything, thanks to its bulletproof compositions and stunning organicity.

Dissonant death metal is a difficult style to do right. Excessive murk, indulgent technicality, and fluidity in the name of avant-garde have the potential to derail – not to mention making a unique impact on a crowded scene. However, Ascetic Reflection strikes an impeccable balance between Portal lurch and Diskord fluidity that sounds distinctly theirs. Good dissonant death metal creates unease. Great dissonant death metal provides listeners escapism. Fantastic dissonant death metal burrows into listeners’ skin while creating unique environs. Altars has created a fantastic album, a comeback that dwells in clarity and pain, proving that they are still kicking nearly a decade later. With Ascetic Reflection, they will challenge the dissonant death hierarchy for years to come.

Rating: 4.5/5.0
DR: 9 | Format Reviewed: 256 kbps mp3
Label: Everlasting Spew Records
Websites: |
Releases Worldwide: July 8th, 2022

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