A curious thing occurred while listening to Ascending the Solarthrone for the first time. I was commuting into the city, a monotonous, cramped experience at the best of times, when we were informed by the disturbingly enthusiastic guard that someone had committed suicide on the tracks. I was already noting the record for its depressive and desolate atmosphere, and in that moment, the feeling it produced was quite extraordinary. There can be no denying the impressive job this Michigan-based trio did in crafting an emotive soundscape. Citing such influences as Burzum, Babyflesh and even The Cure’s Pornography, they’ve produced an oppressive blend of black metal and dark ambient, attempting to overwhelm the listener with its intensity and layering. On this their sophomore effort, Empire Auriga has developed a more raw and immersive sound. Nevertheless, the question I found myself asking was “is there more to Empire Auriga than raw atmosphere?”
The initial impressions from opener “Prophetic Light” are strong. The seemingly ironic title hides a dissonant and uneasy sound, and establishes a swirling maelstrom of dark space, isolating the listener. The highly distorted guitars, distant shrieks and atonal keyboard-work contribute to this off-putting effect, and the crackling production heightens the aura of distance. This oppression endures until around the mid-point of the album. While the darkness remains, “Planetary Awakening” evokes a feeling of remote hope, and during its second half, the record uses more accessible guitar lines and more upbeat melodies. It develops an air of melancholic beauty, largely indebted to Burzum’s iconic Filosofem, evoking the tone of that record particularly on “Planetary Awakening.” In keeping with Ascending the Solarthrone’s theme of space, the concluding track, “The Last Passage of Azon Grul” offers a final serenity after a protracted ‘take-off’, and leaves the listener with peace after what is a strongly evocative record as a whole.
However, a strong atmosphere maketh not an album. Unless explicitly paying attention, the intense drone can become dreary and the tracks repetitively bleed together: the exceptions being the specific aforementioned tonal shifts. This can be attributed to Empire Auriga‘s unwillingness to write a zenith into the record. There is ebb and flow in the aggression and calmness, but no peak to spark the listener out of his grim reverie – this is particularly noticeable on “The Foundation Of All Human Fears.” With an effective crescendo and plodding kick drum, it almost layers to a grand finale, only to fade at the critical moment of the ‘take-off.’ It leaves a sour taste in my mouth since the record would be so much more engaging with adequate pacing and a couple of peaks to complement the troughs.
Additionally, rather than subtly inter-weaving their black metal and dark ambient concepts, aspects are taken from both but never fused to great effect. The opening riff from “Jubilee Warlord” is raw black metal, but once the layering begins, it gets lost. Similarly, the pleasingly disturbed shrieks on “Prophetic Light” and “Planetary Awakening” would be a more confident assertion of their style, but they’re far too low in the mix and fail to properly impact the listener. On the other side of their core sound, neither does Empire Auriga fully utilize its dark ambience. They never achieve a fully-fledged wall of noise effect, which would make for an effective set-piece and better express the oppressive isolation of space.
With regard to production, the overall causticity and roughness aids the intended tone; there is no crystal clarity here, as the objective is to alienate and unsettle. However, the static effect, while effective on the opener, is just bothersome on subsequent tracks – through headphones, I found myself listening to it above the actual music. Furthermore, where there are discernible guitar lines or vocals, they seem too low in the mix and are almost lost in the intense distortion.
What we’re left with is a highly atmospheric record with some glaring flaws. Though I can’t imagine I’ll be returning to it, Ascending the Solarthrone is a worthy listen for its onerous, encapsulating sound, and it may offer more replayability for true ambient aficionados.