The prize for most ambitious album of 2020 already has the name of Ancient Thrones carved in marble. Who among you fancies a 56-minute blackened death metal saga with an epic meditation on one man’s descent into the afterlife? No band thought it conceivable to write the metal version of Ingmar Bergman’s The Seventh Seal, but this Nova Scotia quartet are not just any band. This is a remarkable journey for the contemplative mind.
First thing we should note about Ancient Thrones: they write complex progressive music incorporating black, death and thrash metal. Dylan Wallace and Nick Leslie’s guitar work is supreme. Ferocious metallic guitar rhythms leave plectrum fractures on the strings and buzz in and out of your ears like divine messages that can only be understood through the intercession of bodily possession. It’s clear that drummer, lyricist and vocalist, Sean Hickey, is also a musician of the highest calibre. The way he accents the rapid-fire metal riffs is as impressive as his penmanship. One-minute Ancient Thrones are blasting like black metal commando units, the next moment they’re recuperating in a delicate folk lament on the mysteries of death.
Opener, ‘The Transient’, sets the scene with ringing guitar arpeggios and sinister tom drums, but ‘The Sight of Oblivion’ is where it all begins. You want some vintage thrash guitar like Slayer playing black metal with mid-range screams and Cannibal Corpse vocals? If the answer is no, what are you doing reading Scream Blast Repeat? The first quarter of this record is an impressive maze of riffs and tempo changes with classical guitar solos, but this album comes into its own at track number five, with the 9-minute epic of ‘Viduus (The Veil)’. This is extreme metal laced with exquisite musicianship and limitless exploration. The dark chord formations at the beginning give Hickey a perfect platform to showcase his world-class drum shuffles before the band shift gear into a fury of black metal tremolo riffs and sweep-picking mania. How they switch into a dream-like acoustic introspection at the six-minute mark is as mind-boggling as Mett Leblanc’s bass lines underpinning the rhythms.
Somehow, the record gets better and better with ‘The River of Pain’ mixing the monumental guitar work of Slugdge with the modal majesty of early Megadeth. It sets up the listener for the imperious ‘Divided/Dissolve’ and prepares you for a barrage of blast beats and harmonic minor death metal riffs with numerous modulations throughout. You can feel the soil slipping through your fingers as the sorrowful shriek of “No resistance, we dissolve” penetrates your consciousness like a holy command asking you to surrender to the afterlife. And yet even this takes a back seat to the metal mayhem of ‘The Infinite Eyes’, which motors with tech death precision and glows with a cello bow. The monumental solo at the end is full of emotional pitch bends and the kind of grief that will pass with time. Words like ‘epic’ do not do it justice.
Ancient Thrones make no secret of their exhaustion in making this record. This is the sound of four artists pushing their creativity as far as the elastic will allow before it snaps. Some of you will think The Veil too long and indulgent. True, it could be shorter and perhaps only eight songs would have been enough. But you will overcome these reservations if you listen to the album with the lyrics to guide you through the journey. The dialogue between the hero and the mythological Roman God, Viduus, is as captivating as the music, with the higher pitch of the black metal throat covering the former and the brutal death metal growl giving voice to the latter. It’s rare we can say the pen is mightier than the riff, but here it proves to be equal. “The resonating glow, of being, of light inside this soul, soon to be on its own/ I’ve realized the unquestionable discovery of relation to the one naive in this all,’ laments the dead hero on ‘Viduus (The Veil)’. Wagner would be impressed by the Milton-esque poetry.
How these Canadians aim to top this record on their next outing is a dilemma we will watch with great interest.
Release Date: 06/11/2020
Record Label: Self Released
Standout tracks: Viduus (The Veil), The River of Pain, Divided/Dissolve
Suggested Further Listening: Emperor – Prometheus: The Discipline of Fire & Demise (2001), Revocation – Chaos of Forms (2012), Immortal Bird – Thrive on Neglect (2019)