Covid-19 hit Imperial Triumphant more than most musical artists. They were the hottest tipped band of 2019 after releasing their 2018 avant-garde masterpiece, Vile Luxury. Slots on all the prominent metal festivals followed, but then everything ground to a halt at the peak of their momentum. The quarantine lockdowns gave them time to write and release their well-received 2020 LP, Alphaville, which made many album-of-the-year lists (including ours), but it felt like their status as the future of metal dissipated in 2021. It’s inexplicable, and this reviewer cannot explain it, either. Somehow, Spirit of Ecstasy seems predictable as their latest record, yet underneath it all you can admire the extraordinary coherency and originality. So, why does it lack repeat listening value?
It’s easy to understand the high esteem in which people hold this band. Few artists are as confident and as strident in their iconoclasm as Imperial Triumphant. Opener, ‘Chump Change’, starts with the signature drum rhythms dancing on the rack toms and autonomous basslines that branch off from the source like arteries to another organism. Zachary Ezrin’s guitar chords are jazz fusion played through amp distortion. You’ve heard this before, but that’s because the New York trio trademarked it on their last release. Essentially, Imperial Triumphant are an experimental jazz band with death metal vocals and extreme metal dynamics. They might also be singing about the puzzling contradictions of the Big Apple and riling against the gentrification of Brooklyn, but the vocals are dense and impenetrable. Your attention gravitates towards the stunning Allan Holdsworth-esque guitar solo and the sudden mood changes that recall Mr Bungle in their bipolar complexity. There’s a lot happening here in less than eight minutes.
The black metal roots of Imperial Triumphant disappeared long ago, but you can hear the unique dissonance of Gorguts and the discordant dream thrash of Voivod in most of the songs. ‘Metrovertigo’ confirms what you already know – the New Yorkers would be ideal for the Monterey Jazz Festival as much as Hellfest. Listen to the churning bass and dissonant chords at the beginning here. How supreme is drummer, Kenny Grohowski, when he feels his way into the rhythm? The way he stays on the edges of the common beat defies science. We metalheads will never understand the cunning poise of a jazz fusion sticksman because he does everything our instinct discards. ‘Tower of Glory, City of Shame’ vibrates with golden melodies from a dead era. This is why the band sound so dystopian on this record. The vertiginous horns and swirling piano scales clash with unorthodox doom metal earthquakes. One moment they hide behind their masks like assassins waiting in the wings for their prey; the next moment sees them thrashing their instruments in staccato violence like an automatic weapon sputtering in the last throes of discharge. ‘Merkurius Gilded’ is the closest they come to death metal, but it’s a formless blast that relies too much on saxophones to restore order to the improvisation. If only the vocals had as much depth and variation to match the musical instrumentation.
Unfortunately, the innovation wears off at the halfway point of Spirit of Ecstasy. Once you’ve heard four songs, you’ve heard them all. You can say the same thing about Meshuggah and Gorguts – both bands that require immense patience to understand their genius. That may also be the case here. ‘Death on a Highway’ possesses a murderous guitar crunch and dazzles with an abundance of exquisite drum fills. ‘In the Pleasure of their Company’ incorporates trumpet, sax, bass, and chaotic guitar noise. You’ll be flabbergasted by the independent musical landscapes created by each musician in just one song. Yet something doesn’t stick. Is it the monotonous vocal range? Is it the way each new track resembles the last one? The lazy studio experimentation of ‘Bezumnaya’ suggests they needed to expand the running time of the record behind a veil of abstract ambience and directionless noise, but for what benefit?
Imperial Triumphant carved out their distinct sound in 2018, which means Spirit of Ecstasy lacks the bedazzlement of earlier records. Those coming to the band for the first time will marvel at the dystopian metallic jazz on offer, but those that discovered them in 2018 will lament that it’s good but not stupendous.
Release Date: 22/07/2022
Record Label: Century Media
Standout tracks: Chump Change; Tower of Glory, City of Shame; In the Pleasure of their Company
Suggested Further Listening: Gorguts – Obscura (1998), Voivod – Synchro Anarchy (2022), Mr Bungle – Disco Volante (1995)