Retroactivity / Altar of Plagues – Teethed Glory and Injury

Ten years ago, the Irish black metal trio Altar of Plagues released what would be their final LP, Teethed Glory and Injury, marking the end of the band’s dalliance with post-black metal and the beginning of something else entirely.

Teethed Glory defied the expectations of black metal fans before it even came out. The album’s track list gave the impression it would be nothing like Altar of Plagues’ previous work. Compared to their previous two LPs and their fantastic Tides EP, almost all of which are made up of songs topping the 10-minute mark, Teethed Glory’s tracklist is notable for its indication of many more songs, and much shorter songs than one would expect. The longest track is ‘A Remedy and a Fever’ at almost nine minutes, and the shortest track (including the instrumental intro track ‘Mills’) ‘Found, Oval and Final’ is only a little longer than 3 minutes, practically a grindcore song compared to the interminable lengths of Altar of Plagues’ previous work. We’d certainly come a long way from ‘The Weight of All’ and ‘Neptune is Dead’, both of which brush against the 20-minute mark.

Depending on who you ask, the release of the album’s only single, ‘God Alone’, alongside a music video, either alleviated people’s worries or exacerbated them. I’m happy to say I adored it from the beginning and needed no time to be won over by the album in the decade since its release.

The music video is as unorthodox as you might find in black metal. There are no signs of nature worship, pagan rituals, or acts of violence to be found. Instead, a group of dancers writhe around, contorting their bodies in seemingly impossible ways, throwing, balancing on, and flipping over each other. The description given for the music video states that it ‘explores the contours and possibilities of the human body’, and I feel like that’s a pretty appropriate description for the music in ‘God Alone’, as well. The band explores possibilities and contours of their own music. The track rushes out of the gate with a discordant, angular, 3/4 riff. The song’s second main riff retains the 3/4 structure of the first, and is almost entirely palm-muted, when those same discordant tones aren’t ringing out to emphasise the song’s beat and Johnny King’s masterful drumming. All in all, it sounds like Altar of Plagues’ previous work, compressed into four to five minutes rather than ten to fifteen, with some grindcore and industrial influences mixed in.

The rest of Teethed Glory stays true to the guiding principle outlined by ‘God Alone’. Dissonance continues to be a driving force throughout. Never quite enough to sound like Deathspell Omega or Blut Aus Nord, but its presence is continually felt. Some of the tracks, like ‘Mills’, ‘Burnt Year’, and ‘Reflection Pulse Remains’, bring in some electronic influences as well, adding something like The Haxan Cloak to the cauldron.

A major innovation in the new sound Teethed Glory offers us is in Johnny King’s drumming. In previous albums, Johnny King’s drumming would be mostly blast beats to emphasise the coldness and distance of a track, Mammal’s ‘Feather and Bone’ being a key example. This time King’s drumming is more dynamic, giving every song a degree of physicality beyond most black metal. The build up before the mid-song climax of ‘A Remedy and a Fever’, the entirety of ‘A Body Shrouded’, and the beginning of ‘Scar Scald of Water’ are the places where King’s drumming asserts itself the strongest. Black metal in the more traditional vein of Burzum and Darkthrone often uses the drumming as little more than an accompaniment to the tremolo-picked guitars. It makes an effort to be disembodied, de-emphasising the physical aspects most other genres rely upon, even most metal genres. But Teethed Glory wouldn’t be half of what it is without King’s talents, solidifying the break between Altar of Plagues’ new and old material even further.

None of this is to suggest that there aren’t touches of familiar black metal on the album though. The middle section of ‘Burnt Year’ is one of the few occasions on the album with extended tremolo-picked riffs and blast beats. And the song finishes with some of the most harrowing vocals I’ve heard outside explicitly horror-inspired bands like An Axis of Perdition and Gnaw Their Tongues. ‘Twelve Was Ruin’ begins slowly and builds up power for the first 3 minutes of the 4-minute song, as if to stress that the band’s history of more traditional atmospheric black metal riffs need a proper build up. The ebbing and flowing cacophony at the start of ‘Scar Scald of Water’ has always struck me as similar to Portal’s more comprehensible tracks, maybe something off their Vexovoid album.

But even though Altar of Plagues were still connected to their black metal past, Teethed Glory was an experiment in seeing how far they could go. A review of the album for Pitchfork quotes James Kelly, the band’s driving force and spokesperson, as saying that he was growing weary of the post black metal sound the band had hitherto been associated with. What may have been interesting and even a little revolutionary in 2008 had become stale through oversaturation. They couldn’t continue to remake Mammal forever, and remain shackled to their influences.

The genre experimentation displayed on Teethed Glory resulted in the band being – unfortunately, in my opinion – associated with Deafheaven and that band’s second album Sunbather, released just two months after Altar of Plagues’ final LP. Even though the albums sound nothing alike, they were both tarred with the same label of “hipster black metal”, a phrase which has thankfully dropped out of popularity these days. If I can risk making a distinction that’s a little too academic, I’d argue that Deafheaven’s album experiments with black metal’s content, while Altar of Plagues’ album experiments with black metal’s form. Whereas Teethed Glory ventured out into other genres and experimented with the basic conventions of black metal composition, Sunbather remains firmly inside black metal and turns its hallowed conventions upside down. Kerry McCoy’s riffs are all in major keys, rather than minor. George Clarke’s vocals scream of urban ennui in San Francisco, rather than the well-trodden ground of Norse mythology. Nonetheless, McCoy’s riffs are still largely tremolo-picked and Clarke’s vocals are screamed and rasped. But the many dissimilarities between Teethed Glory and Sunbather didn’t help them getting lumped together by genre traditionalists.

A consequence of the critiques addressing “hipster black metal” as a broad quasi-genre category, and the timing of these two releases, was that Teethed Glory was overshadowed almost entirely by Sunbather and its monumental release period. There will no doubt be many more retrospectives like this for the latter than the former in a couple months’ time. Hipster black metal as a category is so broad as to mean almost nothing, and it was floating around black metal circles much earlier than the releases associated with it. In my time I’ve seen Alcest, Wolves in the Throne Room, Altar of Plagues, Liturgy, and Deafheaven all described as hipster black metal, when these bands sound basically nothing alike besides a general deviance from traditional black metal conventions. But because Sunbather was so popular, including in the mainstream charts which dug Deafheaven’s hole even deeper, it came to dominate what people knew as hipster black metal. As a result, any and all descriptions of hipster black metal became associated with Sunbather specifically, and Teethed Glory was left by the wayside. It wasn’t popular with more traditional black metal fans, but it wasn’t popular among the mainstream audiences that Deafheaven had managed to attract either.

I obviously don’t like the term “hipster black metal”, but I don’t think “post-black metal” is a term which suits Teethed Glory particularly well either. Every Altar of Plagues’ release prior to Teethed Glory – except perhaps their first EP Through the Cracks of the Earth – fits post-black metal pretty solidly, but the band were clear about trying to go beyond that subgenre for their final album. I think if anything Teethed Glory fits closest to what has come to be known as “avant-garde black metal” along the lines of Sigh, Murmuüre, and Botanist, even though those bands sound nothing alike either. One is forced to throw their hands up and admit these bands fit no easy description. For Altar of Plagues, alongside those other acts, black metal is still a driving inspiration, a starting point, but they use it more as a springboard than anything else.

This, in my opinion, is the key to Teethed Glory’s greatness, what has made it remain in my list of favourite albums since its release, and what might make it my favourite album of all time. The album is a sustained effort, true to the images of its sole music video, to bend and contort black metal, and see how far it could go while remaining true to Altar of Plagues’ original vision. It’s no wonder that the band dissolved immediately following the release of the album, with all three bandmembers going in entirely different directions. I feel like there was no other way their post-band careers could have gone. They explored post-black metal, did what they could with it, then abandoned ship. They got what they could out of black metal without feeling indebted to it. There’s something admirable about that.

Words: Bill Peel

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