Celestial Grave – Vitriolic Atonement Review

Three years ago, I covered Finnish black metal mourners Celestial Grave’s debut record, Secular Flesh. At that time, the album was released under a label which today gives me pause. That label isn’t a friendly place, for several reasons upon which I won’t elaborate here. However, Celestial Grave is now releasing their sophomore album, Vitriolic Atonement, under the much smaller and less problematic (for now, anyway) The Sinister Flame. And thus, I picked it up to give it the full treatment. I’m glad I did, too, because Celestial Grave sound like they’ve undergone a pretty significant stylistic evolution, and the results are exciting and intriguing in equal measure.

Where Secular Flesh was harrowing and deeply sorrowful, Vitriolic Atonement is musically enlivened, playful, almost exuberant. It’s almost as if this record was released by a completely different band. Those screamo-adjacent wails of yesteryear are replaced by more consistent rasps filled with fire. The once slow, funereal pacing is now revitalized with trad-metal leads, solos, thrashy riffs and boisterous adventurism. I don’t know who to credit for this stark shift in songwriting tactics, but suffice it to say the evolution Celestial Grave undertook paid dividends in replayability and fun factor. On the other hand, the shift also left much of the emotional immersion that captivated me so on Secular Flesh on the table.

Spanning across six songs in thirty-five minutes, Vitriolic Atonement sees Celestial Grave honing in and tightening their songwriting to create something reliably enjoyable. Opener “Eucharist” combines all of the expected raw black metal staples with youthful traditional heavy metal leads and riffs, eliciting an enthusiasm that belies the death ritual-centric themes. This strategy creates a curiously effective hook that propels the record forward through “Clemency.” After “Clemency” astounds with a beautiful lead melody that evokes a matured variant of their past material, it moves into a punky groove that dances remarkably well within the overarching theme. Celestial Grave manage to create something dynamic and unique with this approach, but another twist lies in wait around the corner. Late album cuts “The Abyss Exhales” and “Exaltation” surge forth with an almost pop-punk exuberance, bouncy riffs and expressive leads/solos elevating this material sky-high to create the band’s career-best effort thus far.

The tradeoff that comes with Celestial Grave’s newfound fury is that Vitriolic Atonement can’t plunder the same emotional depths of past work. For many, that might not be to the album’s detriment. For me, it represents a missed opportunity for Celestial Grave to improve upon an already winning formula. “Clemency” comes close to achieving the desired effect, a hybrid fusion of an adrenaline rush with a bleeding heart. However, it’s a tad bloated compared to its album-mates, which offer more energetic fun at the expense of emotional availability. In other areas, specifically “Cadaverous Solace” and closer “Radiant Tides Below,” generic songwriting builds a wall between the heart of this album and my own, blocking me from forming a deeper bond with the material. Without the punky dalliances of “The Abyss Exhales” or the spiritual ascension of “Clemency,” these inferior songs leave me wanting as the album comes to a close. In some ways, that effectively motivates me to spin the record again, but that very motivation comes from an unfulfilled need rather than a place of desire.

Vitriolic Atonement isn’t at all what I had expected from Celestial Grave. These aren’t the funereal dirges of the past, filled with occult knowledge of the world’s ceremonial rites of burial and mourning. Instead, I encountered something more akin to a celebration of life in honor of the dead, and it was a refreshing surprise. It left new opportunities for the duo to refine this newfound energy and better integrate it with the emotional trials of their more spiritually intimate songs. Additionally, it posed a significant challenge when it comes down to handing out a numerical rating, especially considering how dissimilar this record is from Secular Flesh. Nevertheless, Vitriolic Atonement is a qualified success, a good record, and deserves to be recognized as such.

Rating: 3.0/5.0
DR: 7 | Format Reviewed: 320 kbps mp3
Label: The Sinister Flame
Website: facebook.com/celestialgrave
Releases Worldwide: September 23rd, 2022

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