Autokrator and I go way back. Pursuant to my crucifixion of their unlistenable debut, one of the band members wrung me out over my continuing jabs at the group and, I assume, made sure that this august publication would never catch wind of their sophomore release. According to the wishes of both parties, I neither listened to nor reviewed the effort. So it was with both surprise and unease that I pulled their third LP, Hammer of the Heretics, from the promo bin. And wouldn’t you know? Everything that made me hate Autokrator has disappeared.
How is Hammer so much better than the debut? Let me count the ways. First and foremost, the record is crushed down only to around DR 5 (not counting the interlude), and doesn’t instill fears of hearing loss after the first few minutes. Second, not only can one tell the instruments apart, it is now possible to actually discern the differences between different songs. Third, its four songs assume distinct personalities via these discernable riffs and structures, and within these personalities, Autokrator‘s drone-death project reveals its value. The goal: hellish obscenity. The execution: lethal. “Against Flesh and Blood” opens the album with a riff straight out of necro black metal and surges beneath it, creeping forward into brutality. The drastic improvement in sound quality over Autokrator becomes obvious as soon as the first cymbal roll appears – this sounds like a drum kit now, accompanied by discernable guitar, bass, and a vocalist. Even with the guitar stuck on the low frets, the instruments work together to differentiate movements and produce texture.
Some things haven’t changed; Hammer chugs hard and chugs often, as one would expect for an album constructed around sonic heft rather than clever performances. Yet this is a feature of the sound rather than a crutch. “Inquisitio-Denunciato-Exceptio” uses the technique alongside rigid snare playing to produce a militaristic effect rarely seen in cavernous death metal, which tends to preoccupy itself with R’yleh rather than Rome. The band’s love of interminable samples does, however, remain, and the minute of anguished screaming that pads out “Le Sang Impur” as well as “Interlude” afford ample space for the twiddling of thumbs.
At thirty-five minutes, Hammer of the Heretics doesn’t overstay its welcome and the four-song-plus-interlude format places most dull moments too close to meaty sections to tarnish individual tracks. It lasts as long as one wants to listen to this kind of music, and therein lies my complaint; though in technical measures Hammer of the Heretics far outstrips Autokrator‘s debut, the drone-death hybrid style is not terribly catchy or interesting. While well-stocked in brutality, Hammer falls short on impressive riffs or performances. The luddite riffing rattles along in a cloud of brimstone that’s dense, but homogeneously so. It’s part of the point of the album, to be sure, but when the dust settles, the whole storm hasn’t changed the landscape at all.
Never have I seen a band make as drastic a turn in quality as Autokrator has, and perhaps they’ll hate me less for saying so. I enjoy Hammer; I think it’s a respectable album and that Autokrator have become a respectable act. Yet for all of the improvements, I don’t feel much emotional connection to this album or this style of music. It plays distantly, as a subdued documentary does from the back row of a theater. Hammer‘s brutality does not come with a sense of narrative or a fresh perspective, and it moves at a steady pace through predictable paths. This is not to discount its value, however. Hammer of the Heretics‘ crawling obscenity will put a smile on the face of many a death and drone aficionado; just don’t expect it to widen into a grin.