I must confess that I was disappointed within 30 seconds of hitting play on To (This) by Totenmesse (in German, Requiem). To was advertised to me as “dark ambient” and it felt mightily appropriate to absorb something subtle and atmospheric considering the (finally) dropping temperatures here in Western Europe. Alas, it was immediately apparent to me that it is, in fact, black metal of the Polish ilk and while it may be dark, it most certainly demanded my attention more directly than ambient. In many ways, it’s typical of the Polish scene to draw on death metal in the formulation of its black metal. But is there more to say beyond this?
To fundamentally fits into black metal, using all the genre tropes and hitting all the key musical markers dictating this sound; namely, tremolo-picked guitars, blast beats, and harsh vocals. Excellent musicianship is not a quality I usually cite when describing such metal but here the performances are tighter than the gap in the second Death Star through which Lando squeezed the Millennium Falcon. The drumming, in particular, is ridiculously on point. So rare is it that percussion is truly worthwhile in black metal given its typical relegation to typical blast beats and unimaginative programming. And yet sticks-man Priest deserves a lot of credit for an all-around commanding performance which really directs how many songs progress. His rolling introductions, neat transitions and off-kilter fills feature on all of the record’s best tracks and I find myself hugely impressed.
I would be remiss to not mention a few of the quality riffs too. The purring, opening chords to the album on “Pusty dzwon” (“Empty Bell”) give way to a groovy lead to which the remainder of the track is distantly tethered, while “Cienie wzbijane palcami”1 is stuffed full of great riffs of the scything and groovy varieties. There’s a seemingly bottomless supply of riffs but it’s a credit to Totenmesse that the songwriting remains purposeful and uncluttered; there’s sufficient melodic diversity to stave off boredom without being rendered messy. The distant tethering I mentioned on “Pusty dzwon” is a neat trick and is also apparent on “Zamarzlo” (“Froze”). Retreat back to the central lead occurs several times throughout but this works for three reasons: first, the central lead is strong; second, the embellishments and deviations from this core idea develop it and offer effective reprieves; and third, the track is a concise 4:25 so is hardly overbearing.
I was compelled to frequently interrupt my focused listens by the pleasing number of moments for which I had to take notes. 95% of black metal is entirely predictable and dreary; there have been many reviews for which I had too few notes on four complete listens. Excellent transitions which are often dictated by the drumming and chuggier passages closer to death metal will keep you entertained generally but there are a few tracks of particular note for their willingness to try something new. “Kaiser Tot” (in German, “Dead Emperor”) has a shout-along refrain which cannot be heard elsewhere while “Luna” (“Glow”) boasts a tasty classic metal solo. The closing title track has a brooding, dissonant quality which reminds me of Zhrine and while it is not so engaging from moment-to-moment, it is an atmospheric conclusion. Most unorthodox is the mid-album cover of the legendary “21st Century Schizoid Man” by King Crimson which is an amusing and inventive take on a classic.
I really have nothing substantially negative to say, which begs the question of why I have ‘only’ awarded a 3.0. To is perhaps a victim of its own release date in the year as I’m now compiling preliminary thoughts for my year-end list and I realistically acknowledge that it is unlikely to remain in my rotation for several months, unlike my true favorites. But don’t let that deter kvlt listeners who desire something which firmly fits within what they know but is also surprisingly creative.