Review by Benjamin on April 12, 2021.
During the early part of the 21st century, along with Nile and Cryptopsy, Akercocke were one of a small number of bands releasing death metal which offered a fresh take on the genre, as opposed to simply gazing wide-eyed at the numerous classic releases spewed forth by the US and Sweden a decade previously, and then slavishly imitating the tones, but not the wondrous, alchemical magic of "Left Hand Path", "Blessed Are The Sick", and all the rest. This is not to criticise too harshly the bands whose aims are simply to emulate the sounds of their heroes, and keep the flame burning for certain iterations of the genre – there will always be a place for the kind of solid genre practitioners that fill out mid-afternoon festival line-ups, and the lower reaches of multi-band touring packages. Equally though, we must remember that much of the brilliance of the classic death metal giants was a consequence of the fact that these bands assimilated the traditional heavy metal and thrash that drew them into the extreme metal realm, and twisted it into new and exciting forms. If we still wish to discover the excitement of the novel and ingenious within death metal, it requires that bands continue to fuse their interpretation of the music of their forebears with a desire to conquer new territory, and in 2001 there were realistically precious few bands doing this, particularly in comparison to the black metal scene of the same period, which was going through a dazzlingly creative phase. At the turn of the century, bands such as Akercocke’s compatriots Anaal Nathrakh, and Norway’s Thorns, Dodheimsgard and Ved Buens Ende all birthed fascinating albums which were ostensibly black metal, despite the fact that they had relatively little in common with "De Mysteriis Dom Sathanas", or "In The Nightside Eclipse". Aside from the stellar music, it was this context that made Akercocke’s first two albums such essential listening, evoking the spirit of the classic death metal, but with a sound all of their own.
With the passing of time allowing us the benefit of placing Akercocke’s third album, Choronzon, in the wider context of their discography as a whole, it becomes clear that it is, in some ways, a transitional album for the band. This is not to say that it is in any way a misstep, or indicative of a drop in the calibre of their output, but it does seem to occupy the role of a connecting bridge between the intricate, but vicious extremity of their early years, which moved from the huge potential showcased on Rape Of The Bastard Nazarene, to the flourishing of this potential on its monumental follow-up The Goat Of Mendes, to the spectacular, but more refined, progressive metal of Words That Go Unspoken, Deeds That Go Undone. On the latter, despite the more free-wheeling nature of the material, Akercocke tread their path with total conviction and deep understanding of their position in the universe. On Choronzon however, the overriding impression is that they are attempting to find their way from one destination to another, but without a map, or clear idea of what the destination is, possessing only the hope that they will recognise it when they get there. Consequently, the album is all about the journey, and the inevitable detours that they pursue on the way, and thankfully it’s a voyage that is intriguing, experimental, and mostly full of magnificent metallic music.
Chorozon commences with a fairly lengthy horror sample, not unlike the kind of thing that one-time touring mates Mortician have made their trademark. Superficially, this appears to be Akercocke falling in line with a standard death metal trope, but in fact, rather more thought has gone into it than might be immediately obvious. Akercocke, despite their personal Satanic philosophy, which seems aligned to a LaVeyan form of irreligious Satanism, eschewing any kind of literal belief in the antichrist, their music is full of allusions to the many demonic forms in which a more Thelemic form of Satanism would suggest that evil can manifest itself. Choronzon itself is one such form, essentially described by Aleister Crowley (another mainstay of metal thematics) as a demon of chaos. The sample that precedes the opening track ‘Praise The Name Of Satan’ is taken from an episode of the seminal British horror serial ‘Hammer House of Horror’, the plot of which is based around an invocation of Choronzon, thereby linking in perfectly with both Akercocke’s own aesthetic of the decadent English gentleman, and the central theme of the album itself. Of course, once the sample concludes normal service is resumed, by which I mean that Akercocke treat the listener to a scorching epic, integrating virtually every facet of their far-reaching sound into a thrilling fire and brimstone concoction. Expertly utilising mysterious dissonance as always, the guitars conjure a series of unusual chord voicings, with Jason Mendonca’s black metal screech adding a frightening additional texture. Almost immediately, the aggression drops off, and creepy arpeggios underpin a synth backdrop, beneath which David Gray’s unfailingly accurate double-bass battery continues to rumble forwards, evoking the threatening menace of an entire division of tanks. Then, as if to demonstrate that they haven’t mellowed three albums into their career, a grim, icy blast reminds the listener that if Akercocke are nominally a death metal band, they are a death metal band that have the ability to adopt the speed and modality of prime Gorgoroth when the mood takes them. As satisfying as this all is, it is also largely what one would expect from Akercocke, even if the electronic element of their sound feels even more natural that it ever has before, and not the afterthought that it might be in the hands of a less capable band. The latter section of the track, however, sees the band take flight into spacy prog-goth realms, which exhilaratingly feels like the first tentative steps into the direction that they would commit themselves fully to, just a couple of short years later. Once again, we see an already mature band continuing to evolve before our very eyes.
Another part of this evolution sees Akercocke exploring the scales and tones of more Eastern-sounding music, expanding their palette to encompass their variation on the lush and sun-scorched sounds of North Africa and the Middle East. This is introduced via the brief interlude which transitions smoothly into ‘Leviathan’, one of the pivotal tracks on which the album as a whole turns. ‘Leviathan’ picks up the Eastern theme for the closing phase of the track, although it twists its way through a maze of dazzling motifs before it gets there. Initially, the vaguely danceable (and slightly dated) feel of the mid-tempo goth-metal feels like giant step towards the kind of accessibility that opens up the band to the kind of sell-out accusations that the underground enjoys throwing at any band that dares to periodically operate on any setting below white noise. The stabbing guitar figures and electronic thrum recall Pitchshifter’s stompy snarl, and the comparison continues to be apposite, as Akercocke again display their ability to seamlessly meld metallic riffing with David Gray’s interesting drum ‘n’ bass-influenced drum patterns. Fascinating stuff, but the track solidifies its status of one of the band’s most satisfying as a result of the lush psychedelic section which finally resolves the uneasy dissonance of the first few minutes in a lengthy and beguiling synth-based workout, which suggests a productive meeting of minds between Tool and The Cure, and utterly alters the complexion of the track. Finally, the warm, enveloping sounds of the aforementioned closing segment of a bewitching track conjure the kind of opulence that Opeth adopted so effectively on the most evocative tracks on "Ghost Reveries". Not for the first time in their career, Akercocke have demonstrated the ability to conquer new territories and integrate a diverse array of sounds without the kind of clumsy incongruity that often afflicts similar attempts by lesser bands.
The experimentation with more laid back and melodic sounds continues throughout an album that is impossible to pin down – every time the listener feels that they have figured out where Akercocke are going, they abruptly introduce a new dimension to their sound, the 2-Dimensional map suddenly gaining a third dimension, and the perspective shifts accordingly. ‘Valley Of The Crucified’, for example, intrigues. An immersive gothic ballad, led by delightful synth melodies which bring a deep grandeur to the band’s sound, emphasising textures and deft harmonic interplay over churning tremolo riffing, and gradual development over the stop-start structures that the band usually favour. If this gives the impression that Akercocke are maturing just a little too much, the way in which the same track builds to a bestial slice of symphonic black metal shows that they have not moved on from the kind of extremity that made their name, but have simply learned how to accommodate some lighter shades within what was previously unremitting darkness. ‘Son Of The Morning’, towards the end of the album is another of the touchstone tracks previously mentioned. While Akercocke have always featured electronic sounds across their albums, generally in a subtle way, this track sees the band truly embrace this aspect of their personality, the buzzing electro providing a firm foundation for the vaulting vocal melodies of the verse. Potentially, the band could have opted to truly play against type here and maintain this sound for the full duration of the track, but the band’s restlessness means that it is not long before this streamlined version of Akercocke flourishes into a progressive metal masterpiece that operates primarily and uncharacteristically in a triumphant major key. The shimmering guitars, and dextrous riffing suggest an exciting update to Cynic’s early 90s sound, or even Jane’s Addiction discovering blastbeats. The whole thing is utterly majestic, and totally compelling.
It’s not all free-wheeling exploration, however. ‘Enraptured By Evil’ returns to out and out brutality, showcasing breathtaking velocity and pulverising death metal that perhaps surpasses anything that the band have ever recorded in the heaviness stakes. The endless variations of the band’s familiar whirring, gymnastic riffing style that develop the main themes of the track, are frankly mind-boggling in the precision of the execution, and as ever, Gray’s drum performance is a masterful blend of instrumental proficiency, power and feral intensity. Akercocke have an incredible gift for creating memorable hooks from complex rhythmic ideas, which prevents their intricate musical web from ever becoming too much of a triumph of technique above all else, and this is fully evident on this fantastic song. ‘Scapegoat’ and ‘Becoming The Adversary’ are also magnificent examples of the pure metallic fury that Akercocke are still capable of whipping up, when they are not recreating the Byzantine sounds of the ancient Middle East. The former sees the band substitute their usual preference for "Altars Of Madness"-era Morbid Angel for the more sickening lurch of the "Blessed Are The Sick" incarnation of that legendary act, before the band drop into an insanely infectious thrashing mid-section that is a total departure for them, before culminating in the kind of dizzying tech-death that Cannibal Corpse have been trafficking in for some time now. The latter covers a huge amount of ground, from pure Norsecore minor-key blasting to cosmic Mithras-like psychedelic death metal, and the fret-melting wizardry of the latter half of the track make it probably the highlight of the whole album.
‘Goddess Flesh’ brings Choronzon to an odd close, a synth-pop ballad built on a staccato string loop, which is in keeping with the ambience of the record, but something of an anti-climax after the white-hot pinnacle of ‘Becoming The Adversary’. This, however, should not cloud our judgement of what is another sublime album in the Akercocke discography. Once again, the band continue to mine a rich seam of blackened death metal, while simultaneously growing their sound into new areas in a way that feels like a perfectly natural extension of their core sound, as opposed to gauche trial and error. Their ability to generate all-pervasive and immersive soundscapes, while still dominating the competition with their superior metallic firepower is matched by Nile alone of that era. If there are flaws to be found in Choronzon, we should point to the fact that it is not quite as coherent an album as The Goat Of Mendes, and as such does not quite compel the listener’s unwavering attention with quite the same relentlessness. However, it also contains some of the band’s best work, and should most fairly be evaluated as a necessary step on the road to its mighty successor, which succeeds in pulling all of the wild threads of experimentation initially woven on Choronzon into a single cogent expression of progressive majesty. The destination is wondrous, but the journey there is also supremely enjoyable.
Rating: 8.8 out of 10
First published here: alifetimeofmusic.wordpress.com446