Mortal Thrall – A Path to Fire


Nashville duo, Mortal Thrall, formed during the Covid-19 lockdown and finished composing and recording their debut during those strangest of days. Main man, Todd Harris, draws his inspiration from the compelling story of María de los Dolores López – one of the final victims of the Spanish Inquisition in 1781 – and steers his musical vision close to the experimental black metal of Blut Aus Nord and Liturgy for the band’s inaugural release. As a gay man, Harris fears that a new kind of inquisition is just around the corner if the western world embraces populism and returns to its martial masculine foundations. A Path to Fire is a celebration of martyrdom, but it’s also an analogy for the smoulders of intolerance that lurk behind the façade of civilisation.

As a storyteller, Harris deserves the highest praise for his succinct linear narrative. Each song takes a chapter of María’s life and describes the events and emotions of her situation over the liberating rage of a post-black metal soundscape. The canvas here is red and orange smothered in black soot, which makes the Americana intro of ‘Flames (Interpolation)’ all the more intriguing before the opening blast beats of ‘A Path to Fire’ raise the adrenaline levels. Those of you that enjoyed the blackgaze textures of the latest MØL album will recognise a kinship here. The guitars bubble and froth but remain incarcerated in a subdued amp distortion, like the shoegaze bands of the early 1990s. Harris is less subtle with his vocal approach – the larynx is his weapon of agitation on this record.

You’ll need the lyrics to help you navigate through the dense wave of lo-fi guitars and raw blast beats on ‘Take the Cold’ and ‘The Calling’. Both chronicle María’s early years when she left home at age twelve after losing her parents and her eyesight. She survived as a mistress of her priest. “A man of power/ Seemingly pious/ Chose to be a desecrator,” roars Harris, as if judging the eighteenth century by the intolerant woke standards of the twenty-first century. He’s not wrong in his judgement, nor can he leave out the execrable behaviour of the priest as part of María’s remarkable story, but it presents problems later down the line when he takes issue with the patriarchal power structure of Catholic Spain on ‘Twelve long Years’. This reads like an undergraduate denouncing a former civilisation from the megaphone of an LGBTQ rally. “How did we award/ Such overwhelming power/ To one gender over another/ Based on stories and lies.” Good point, but why does one get the impression the re-reading of history here serves a narrower purpose?

On a musical level, A Path to Fire is the type of black metal dalliance that will enrage the puritans (or should we call them inquisitors?). The way the band defile their major chords with a dissonant padding offers little in the way of a metallic thrill, but the likes of ‘Passion Made a Weapon’ and ‘One Soul, One Life’ are intriguing in their concoction. They lack the sharp dynamics of chaos essential to aggressive music, but the emotional catharsis saves them from mediocrity. Closing track, ‘Flames Filled the Sky’, is perhaps the best example of a triumphant combination of black metal melodrama with the hazy introspection of 1980s art rock. This tells the story of how Maria avoided the spectacle of being burned alive when she confessed before the pyre and received the mercy of execution by strangulation instead.

Today, María is a counter-culture heroin who claimed to have married Jesus Christ in Heaven and slept with the Virgin Mary. Her uncompromising beliefs, severe disability, and wretched abuse at the hands of those in authority come to life in A Path to Fire, but one wonders if the abstract sonics of atmospheric black metal blunt the true impact of the story.

JVB


Verdict


Release Date: 26/07/2019

Record Label: Trepanation Recordings

Standout tracks: Take the Cold, Passion Made a Weapon, Flames Filled the Sky

Suggested Further Listening: Blut Aus Nord – Memoria Vetusta II – Dialogue with the Stars (2009), Liturgy – H.A.Q.Q. (2019), MØL – Diorama (2021)