At the Altar of the Horned God – Heart of Silence Review

There’s a reason humans have worshipped nature throughout history. The natural world has an allure and a power that many can appreciate, whether or not they attribute divinity to it. At the Altar of the Horned God takes the more worshipful tone, conducting their second rite of reverence through deeply atmospheric, folk-tinged, experimental black metal. While the previous ceremony Through Doors of Moonlight was an intense, ecstatic affair of a soul touched suddenly by divinity, Heart of Silence’s spiritual episode is a little more ritualistic, a tad subtler, and darker. Just as that oddly charming art implies, this is a nighttime ritual, and the music’s melancholy, and echoing presence cements this as we tread deeper into the dark forest to call on the woodland gods. And while the pious protagonist might stand alone amongst the beating drums and eerie refrains, the listener is not abandoned to any abrasive obscurity of what ‘avant-garde’ might imply. With a melodic allure, Heart of Silence is yet more accessible than AtAotHG’s previous work, and perhaps still more mysteriously engrossing.

At the forefront of the music is the ritual atmosphere, led by the use of djembe—a kind of hand-played drum—tambourines, and haunting chants that create hypnotic rhythms. Often Heolstor will layer his vocals in choruses of harmonizing or dissonant croons and snarls. Dark ambience shrouds much of the blackened tremolo picking and rasping snarls, allowing it to take on a dreamlike ethereality. If synths aren’t replacing guitar for lead melody, they’re wavering musingly in the background. When things do take a more overtly black metal turn, it’s almost jarringly stark and sharp against the midnight glow of the rest, but the rawness serves a purpose. Even the cover of Suicide Commando’s “God is in the Rain” fits brilliantly as another step in the strange ritual. And as different hymns and incantations these—on paper—disparate styles of atmospheric black metal and folk and electronic melt together into a strange unity.

Heart of Silence is the kind of odd that’s compelling and enjoyable, and from the first track commands you to “Listen.” With percussion providing a tribalistic heartbeat of frenzied dancing (“Listen,” title track) or solemn profundity (“Closing Circle,” “Chthonic Summoning,” “Guardian of the Threshold”)—always with either a subtle or overt flavor of ceremony thanks to the hand-played instruments—the music feels intense whatever the pace. And the eerie chanting, moaning vocals (title track, “Chthonic Summoning,” “Severing Light”) can also be quite captivating in a sudden lamenting clarity (“Severing Light”). Likewise, the reverberating growls and snarls take on a forceful persuasiveness as they repeat a mysterious incantation (“Listen,” “Chthonic Summoning,” “Severing Light”), and have a warped intrigue when they take on a more abrasively percussive cloudedness (“Anointed with Fire”). There are moments of weird beauty amidst it all, too, which tend to occur right at the crossroads of dark ambient, folk, and black metal. The dense, ominous bass of “Chthonic Summoning” and “Severing Light”, paired with the former’s intensifying blackened hymnic refrain and the latter’s strange harmonized cleans and washes of warped tremolo—complete with mournful solo—are chilling, and bewitching.

Not everything carries quite the same magic, though. Beside the weird and wonderful litanies that fill the album, “Guardian of the Threshold” and “Anointed with Fire” stand out as the weakest in their relative straightforwardness. The former’s dungeon-synth approach is too anodyne, and too safe, to impact, while the latter’s energetic tremolo-led rawness is not generic, but it is least comparatively plain. These are small pieces of the whole, and don’t overly mar what is overall intriguing and unique. It’s weird, but AtAotHG knows what melody is, and how to wind it into stirring themes; and what rhythm is, and how to keep the listener compulsively tapping along. And when those midway (“Chthonic Summoning”) and final (“Severing Light”) high points arise, they’re like the tension and ensuing catharsis of the ceremony we’ve become a part of.

With Heart of Silence, AtAotHG has retained their dark and charming idiosyncrasy, but simultaneously sharpened their focus, and increased their accessibility. This is something special that should speak to fans of the folky, the ambient, and the blackened alike.

Rating: Very Good
DR: 6 | Format Reviewed: 320 kbps mp3
Label: I, Voidhanger Records
Releases Worldwide: March 3rd, 2023

« »