In 2004, a close friend of mine lost not one but both of his parents in the Indian Ocean tsunami that claimed nearly a quarter of a million lives. While I hope I will never experience tragedy as dramatic and profound as his, the impact reverberated throughout our small group, and to a comparatively infinitesimal degree, we shared in his loss. Without wanting to cheapen such sorrow, doom metal — particularly in its more extreme iterations — has always offered me a similar catalytic capacity to know its author’s pain. Canada’s Altars of Grief dabble in a blackened funeral doom, and their second album, Iris, is yet to fail to devastate me in a way that only the truly heartbroken know. Crushing, beautiful and unequivocally exceptional.
It can’t be denied that the band’s self-coined “prairie doom” owes a musical debt to the much-missed Woods of Ypres, and by extension, Type O Negative. Woods 5 is a rare perfect album for me, and denied further releases from such acts, due to the unfortunate passing of both David Gold and Peter Steele, I’m nothing short of delighted to find their musical legacy is not just being maintained, but progressed by the likes of Altars of Grief. Centered around a pseudo-concept of one man’s acute loss, vocalist, Damian Smith, interchanges between familiar sonorous cleans and a mid-range blackened roar to recount a lifetime spent with the burden of bereavement. The vocal work on this album is key, with most of the band layering their own input behind Smith’s to create a rich luster to offset the anguished emotion.
Iris boasts a level of songwriting exemplary of the upper echelons of the craft. I, personally, don’t bear a burning love for black metal unless it’s well melded with another genre — fortunately, the band has pillaged Norway’s dark flame for the necessary kindling only, subtly charring the material and knowingly allowing the inconsolable doom to pervade. “Desolation” and the title track often seethe with crisp tremolos and wild blasting until the intrinsic melancholy swallows everything whole once again. For such a dense record — conceptually and musically — each song remarkably manages to mourn on its own merit, bonded to Iris as a whole via a stunning ever-present cello. The centerpiece, “Child of Light,” hosts a veritable seraphim of dramatic chords until a more pronounced death/doom inflection crawls over the maudlin pace, peaking with a huge bridge riff, courtesy of Evan Paulson and Erik Labossiere, that triumphantly elevates the chorus. And really, the sheer memorability of every song is what serves to separate the woeful wheat from the crestfallen chaff. Some bands just don’t have the aptitude to convey the desired effect with such indelible songwriting — Altars of Grief seamlessly consolidate the two, so by the time the funereal “Broken Hymn” lurches into life, with drummer, Zack Bellina, supplying a much weightier growl, I’m hardly surprised at the sheer immediacy of the album’s heaviest song, whose deathly march actually manages to accentuate the strings rather than the other way around.
Yes, the master is a tad compressed and perhaps the guitar tone is a little thin when backed with such dramatic programming, but honestly, I couldn’t care less. I can’t even conceive of what kind of pompous moron I’d have to be to quibble over industry-standard production when the record’s material is as sterling as it is. Surely channeling the spirit of David Gold, closer, “Becoming Intangible,” exists as a reflective threnody, minimalist, and stirring. When Smith half-whispers “I’ve never felt so close to God” as he audibly fades, it’s genuinely chilling until the piece slips into one last blast of tangible fury, culminating with the best riff of the album in as cinematic an apotheosis as metal can muster.
Albums like Iris champion composition, existing to blind the overly-washed masses as they peer down their narrow, monochrome minds at metal as a whole. Moving, well-crafted and infinitely replayable despite its implication, Altars of Grief have carved a modern classic of doom, coruscating yet beautifully bleak and never afraid to display its forefather’s bones. I don’t know who Iris is or what she represents, but whenever her namesake fades away, I know I would move mountains to have her back, and that is an effect that only the most prodigious of art can command.
DR: 4 | Format Reviewed: 320 kbps mp3
Label: Hypnotic Dirge Records
Websites: altarsofgrief.bandcamp.com | altarsofgrief.com | facebook.com/altarsofgrief
Releases Worldwide: March 21st, 2018