Overall Score: 9/10 Songwriting: 9/10 Ingenuity: 9/10 Originality: 9/10 Pros: Sublimely crafted avant-garde blackened death metal | Deviously ambitious Cons: Perhaps throws too many ideas in to see what will land
When you think of black metal chances are The Beatles don’t come to mind. But that’s exactly how Alphaville, the latest album from New York city’s own post-black metal, jazz enthusiasts, begins. The scabrous opening buzz, the unsettling, grotesque crescendo of Rotted Futures owes greatly to A Day in the Life from 1967’s Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band. Hardly the connection one would expect for a black metal band, but then Imperial Triumphant aren’t your common or garden Bathory worshippers. They’re more Emperor in their adventurousness. With 2018’s Vile Luxury, an appearance at the hallowed Roadburn festival and the backing of the Riot Act podcast, Imperial Triumphant began to make waves with their neoclassical, avant garde approach to creating blackened music. The introduction of 1940s swung jazz to their sound on a song like Swarming Opulence was anathema to anything that had been heard in the genre. While their first two records, Abominamentvm and Abyssal Gods, are as experimental as the likes of their contemporaries in Oranssi Pazuzu, it was with their third album that Imperial Triumphant began to mark themselves out from the crowd. After a set clashing with the Damnation Festival 2019 headliners Opeth that was admittedly sparsely attended, there are eyes are on Imperial Triumphant to see just how far they can continue to push themselves and into which strange territories they will venture.
Rotted Futures begins as a Beatles-esque exploration of pushing the listener to the limits of discomfort and quickly settles into a polyrhythmic barrage of clean guitars, weighty bass and deathened growls of indignation. This makes Emperor’s experimentation on Prometheus: The Discipline of Fire & Demise seem palatable. Serpentine and writhing like an infernal machination it constricts the listener, yet leaves you feel oddly satisfied and contemplative, particularly as the final elongated note from a Hammond organ resounds for what feels like minutes when it is only seconds. This is a space warping record, one that cares not for the boundaries of an earthly dimension such as time. It feels classy, even when soaked in filth. This vile experimentation continues into Excelsior, a track that breaks away from the convention of time signatures to change seemingly bar by bar into a whiplash inducing headrush. The midpoint sample of louche strings over what sounds like people wandering about Grand Central station grounds the album and reminds you that this is a human affair despite its ungodly nature. There is a hell and Imperial Triumphant have captured it.
Single, City Swine, sees the band engage in free jazz in an astringent bending of strings and looseness of feel similar to the break in The Dillinger Escape Plan’s 43% Burnt. It all gives way to a flurry of percussion, one of hand slapped skins and a single gong crash that feel every bit as unsettling as someone breathing down the back of your neck, lusting for a taste of sweet skin. The breaks in the organised chaos for intricate yet seemingly improvised taiko drums, courtesy of Meshuggah’s Tomas Haake, acts as panacea to the torturous sounds that form the majority of this record. It suddenly takes you from the bustle of New York, a place to which the band are so inextricably linked, to the devastating silence of post-World War II Japan. A loss and mourning palpable in the minimalist music. But it’s not a drum solo, thank god. For those wondering what Imperial Triumphant would do to further their sound, you have your answer in City Swine: Moving from the swing of 40s big band and jazz, they have taken on the discordance of John Zorn and late Miles Davis. This is a contemporary jazz record as much as it is a crushing rhapsody of blackened hellfire.
Not to let you settle into any semblance of comfort, Atomic Age sees a barbershop quartet sample open the track before devolving into static, distorting as it fades away into a clattering of tritones and sliding guitar. This juxtaposition between the sweet and the destructive is reminiscent of the man/machine dichotomies portrayed in the likes of cult classics like Jean-Luc Goddard’s Alphaville, Fritz Lang’s Metropolis – upon which Cult of Luna’s astounding Vertikal was based – as well as art deco video games like Bioschock and the neo-50s noir of the Fallout series. There’s a sense of tension in this co-opting of the 1950s aesthetic; that post-war sigh of relief followed by bated breath as to what exactly will come next. At this point you’ll be inclined to wonder quite what is going on.
As Transmission To Mercury begins, all horns and piano, you begin to wonder whether this is an album too clever for its own good, and whether Imperial are throwing everything and the kitchen sink at the wall to see what sticks. If you thought Deafheaven pissed off black metal fans, you ain’t heard nothing yet. As the song fuses its black metal and the brass section together, it all feels remarkably cohesive and you begin to settle into the relative groove of the inimitable soundscapes. It feels right, and that class from way back in Rotted Futures returns to you. It’s comforting, even as the pained shrieks and desperate cries see the track out. The cacophony that opens the title track feels relatively subdued compared to its predecessors and the riff that constitutes the latter half of the first verse (?) is close to technical death metal with its intricacy and borderline groove. Puzzling. They say there is a fine line between genius and insane and goddamn do Imperial Triumphant saunter along that knife edge with swagger and verve, careless about alienating the listener and indeed creating art for art’s sake.
Is that a good thing? The boom of modernism and post-modernism taught us much about what could be considered art whilst sparking arguments that rage to this day – mention Tracey Emin to a group of art students and watch the sparks fly – to no avail. We don’t – or at least I don’t – know how to accurately define “art”. It could be something as seemingly simple as Emin’s My Bed, or Marcel Duchamp’s The Fountain, or it could be something as bewilderingly chock full of ideas and lyrical phrases as discourteous and dispassionate as Alphaville’s. What makes art is up for debate, and so is this record. Impervious to amateur critique, this is a record that can be pored over for many, many years to come by both professional critics and your bog-standard black metal fan. It will be the subject of discussion, of celebration, of argument. Impenetrable, it will be a work of maddening genius to some, and one of pretentious tosh to others. What is undeniable is the amount of skill that was required to craft such a divisive record, and whether this is your album of the year, the worst thing you have ever heard or something in the middle, no one can begrudge you your feelings. This isn’t unadulterated genius and it is flawed in its approach to frenziedly flinging everything in the listener’s direction, however it is undoubtedly a masterclass that moves the genre forward as a whole. Brilliant or misguided, whatever you make of it, it will stand as a landmark in extremity for years to come.
Imperial Triumphant’s Alphaville will be released on July 31st via Century Media Records