Since the late 1990s, black metal has been distancing itself from its notoriously elitist second wave, with bands rebelling against their pioneering yet parochial elders through their affairs with countless alien styles. The infidelities were endless; industrial (Anaal Nathrakh, Dødheimsgard); atmospheria (Darkspace, Wolves in the Throne Room); psychedelia(!) (Nachtmystium, Oranssi Pazuzu, Hail Spirit Noir), microtonality(!) (Jute Gyte). Drugs. Sex. Every sort of filth… And let us not forget Deafheaven, whose internet-breaking 2013 blackgaze release Sunbather almost became the most blasphemous event in black metal history since the church-burnings if it weren’t for the fact that it was a bit dull.
Bands like Ulver, Blut Aus Nord, Deathspell Omega and Krallice have represented the more avant-garde strain of black metal, doing for the genre what Gorguts did for death metal. Eschewing stylistic clichés in favour of dissonance, surrealism and eclecticism, New York trio Imperial Triumphant follow in this untradition. While their earlier EPs displayed a more neoclassical approach akin to Behemoth or Septicflesh, it was on their first full-length that they began to hone their atonal and chaotic style that they are now known for, a sound that became fully realised on full-lengths Vile Luxury and Alphaville, released in 2018 and 2020, respectively. Most notable has been their thematic transition, taking their transtemporal campaign from ancient battle theatres to the wars on Wall Street and late capitalism. Spirit of Ecstasy is their fifth release, and arguably their most ambitious, employing the services of an impressive roster of guest musicians; to mention a few we have lead guitars from Trey Spruance (Mr Bungle, Secret Chiefs) and Alex Skolnick (Testament), vocals from Snake (Voivod), choral work from Andromeda Anarchia; and none other than smooth jazz saxophonist Kenny G, with his son Max Gorelick also providing some lead guitar work.
The band wastes no time with opener ‘Chump Change’, coming straight out of the gate with their swirling bedlam of atonal guitars and adreno-jazz drum designs. Moments of ‘Metrovertigo’ echo their martial beginnings, with founder Zachary Ilya Ezrin’s bestial vocals commanding dominion amidst the sonic warfare, and ‘Death on the Highway’ reaches extremist heights of noise-jazz tantamount to old Naked City records. ‘Tower of Glory, City of Shame’, the third pre-release single, stands alone as testament to the sheer versatility of the record. Carnivalous riffs, soaring female vox, barbaric screams; a surreal and vile sermonic posthuman vocal dirge; all culminating in manic noise metal with sample cut-ups and the kind of stop-start post-industrialism that made Code Orange’s 2020 record Underneath so innovative. ‘Merkurius Gilded’ begins with a beautiful but brief string section before another proverbial hell is promptly broken loose and the band again remind us that their onslaughts of auditory violence afflict most harm to those who fall prey to false securities. Kenny G arrives at the halfway point, not to mollify or smoothen but rather augment the chaos, the interplay between his sax playing and son Max Gorelick’s lead parts proving to be a manic highlight of the record.
The trio surprise us again with ‘In the Pleasure of Their Company’, an album highlight, bringing so much influence and innovation into one track; the Yakuza-esque blend of free-form jazz and post-hardcore and even some proggy cosmo-jazz guitar work reminiscent of John McLaughlin’s on Mahavishnu Orchestra’s Birds of Fire record. Steve Blanco’s bass work is also at its most present and groovy here. ‘Bezumnaya’ is another exercise in distressing our expectations, transitioning inconsiderately from ritualistic vocals to Gnaw Their Tongues-like blacknoise. The album ends with lead single ‘Maximalist Scream’, a final push of distorted jazz, vocals courtesy of Voivoid’s Snake, kaleidoscopic guitar leads and eventually a deafening noise crescendo like some kind of cruel twist on The Beatles’ ‘A Day in the Life’; nothing resolved, nothing concluded, and why should it be.
Veteran New York producer and musician Colin Marston (Krallice, Gorguts, Behold… The Arctopus & many more) again takes the production credit and gives such justice to a band at the top of their game. Ezrin’s vox have hit their apex, tending not so much to frostbitten shrieks but gored death growls; his guitars are blistering, Blanco’s bass playing is frenetic, jazzy, present and rebellious; Kenny Grohowski’s drums are tribal, relentless, anti-math and measureless. The typical orchestral and choral swarms are here and as haunting ever, invoking visions of a Lovecraftian demon casting its towering black wings over a cityscape. Imperial Triumphant thematically supersede the tired lyrical “taboos” of extreme metal―gore, mutilation, tribalism, revelry―and jump straight to the transgressive: the despicable sexual follies of the religious man; the criminal greed of the capitalist; suffering on global scales. Although Imperial Triumphant deals in chaos, there is control and elaboration to their songwriting; there are no happy mistakes here. Never do they dress their wizardry in flashy garbs: the productional sheen employed by so many lifeless tech death and prog metal bands; if anything they bely their technical proficiency through the sheer rawness of their delivery, enacting chaos more like math rockers than math metallers. Even the polymetric trickery of Meshuggah―and their legion of imitators―can be quantified with a bit of long division. Compositionally, Imperial Triumphant forgo conventional song structures, and instead give us these capricious sequences of histrionic episodes; more manic than depressive; minimalism and maximalism playing mutual devilish advocates.
Just when we’d thought they had converged to a comfortable yet idiosyncratic style, they’ve pulled out a new rulebook. Not only is this perhaps their greatest release yet, but also a fearfully ecstatic danger sign of what awaits us in the future. Spirit of Ecstasy is an exercise in accelerationism; a series of hellish and cautionary sonic vignettes; creating not walls of sound but skyscraping frontispieces of cacophony and the kind of madness only humans could engineer.
Spirit of Ecstasy is out now via Century Media Records.
Words: Rory Hughes