London’s Akercocke have a storied past pointed with controversy, as most metal bands with heavy Satanic themes are. The extreme metal scene – England and beyond – considers them legends, so when the black/death metal band announced their return with a new album ten years after their last effort, it made sense that all eyes would be fixated on them. Those ten years have changed things; whether it’s for the better is up to each individual to decide, but I see it as a net positive. Gone are the days of overtly Satanic, sexual lyrics and donning their album covers with breasts and goat heads. We’re left with a ‘comeback’ album that appears to be as inimitable as the eclectic band itself.
Akercocke have traded in their heavy-handed approach for something more mature, progressive and different with Renaissance in Extremis. They never leave their roots far behind, but take full advantage of the opportunity to broaden their expression, sonically and beyond.
The opening track, “Disappear”, is a very Akercockeian affair. The driving death metal guitar riffing and blast beat drums of the intro should prove to be pretty familiar with fans. Jason Mendonça’s lower-than-low gutteral growls create a fissure in the track when they come in. The song has a warm, welcoming feeling to it, despite its more aggressive elements. “Insentience”‘s main riff is really groovy and catchy, accentuated further by the playful bass after the first short vocal verse. Mendonça’s voice is front and center throughout most of this track, switching between yelled vocals and light singing, matching the instrumentation’s polarized mood nicely. Although it’s a comparatively calmer track, it’s arguably the best on the album due to its exceptional progression.
I say ‘arguably’ because I haven’t gotten to my favorite track, “Familiar Ghosts”, yet. Its ambient intro is a wonder to behold: the sound of seagulls and water softly brushing by lays a foundation for soft guitar and drums to sit on prettily. There’s also a very nice swelling of strings that accompanies the instrumentation. It’s reminiscent of “My Apterous Angel” from Antichrist, but with a different flavoring. Mendonça sounds simply ethereal as he sings the opening lines: ‘pain is howling / insistent and keen‘. It then quickly relents into a death metal blaze with a guitar solo and harsher vocals. The song grows more and more intense and ghastly, as if gradually possessed by the eponymous ghosts or another great evil. Similar beats are touched on by the album closer, “A Particularly Cold September”, another solid track with lots of fleshed-out bits connected by an overall epic feel. And speaking of feel…
The rest of Renaissance in Extremis treads ground similar to what I’ve already laid out: the soloing in “A Final Glance Back Before Departing” has the same unmitigated fire as the riffing in “Insentience”, and the aggressive side of “Inner Sanctum” flashes back to “Familiar Ghosts” and its mid-section. This doesn’t mean it’s necessarily repetitive or stale, just that the general feel of the album can be summed up pretty quickly, leaving the finer details for listeners to parse out. This mostly works in Renaissance in Extremis‘ favor; sometimes, keeping things straightforward yet strong is more than enough to please. Also, it’s apparent from the first track alone that the sound of this album is noticeably cleaner than Akercocke‘s past efforts, which might dissuade fans of their earlier black metal-tinged sound where mixes where rough and muddy, but I couldn’t thank them enough for that decision.
My trek through this album was not without its setbacks, though. I already briefly touched on this, but for the uninitiated: Mendonça has an interesting range, utilizing three primary vocal styles. He’s got deep gutterals akin to Dying Fetus‘ John Gallagher, an operatic clean singing voice that sounds like gothic Elvis mixed with AFI‘s Davey Havok or Tracy Chapman (not even kidding), and harsher yelled vocals that are still clean enough to understand. This vocal range shouldn’t surprise any fans of the band, but to someone that didn’t closely follow the band throughout their eccentric and controversial pre-hiatus years, it can be a little off-putting. There’s times where I wish that vocal styles didn’t change so wildly or that one or two were the primary focus. I chalk this up to my personal tastes, but it was a nagging thought in my head all the same. If I had to throw out a least favorite track of mine, it would be “One Chapter Closing for Another to Begin”. It’s a softer track that lacks a lot of the variance and progression of other tracks. It poises itself to come to an explosive climax like a couple other songs do, but doesn’t fully commit, leaving the track lifeless in comparison.
In spite of ultimately small complaints, I did enjoy my time with Renaissance in Extremis. For my money, this is probably the best post-hiatus album I’ve heard since Carcass‘ Surgical Steel. Clearly there were ideas simmering in the heads of these artists throughout those ten long years, and listeners get to reap the benefits of what time and careful process can do to art. Renaissance in Extremis is quite the fitting title for an album like this, effectively meaning (in my own words) ‘boundless rebirth’, which is exactly what the band has achieved here. The maturity and originality shines through, but Akercocke haven’t forgotten who they are. Fans will love it, and newcomers will perhaps walk away with a new favorite band whose back catalog is begging to be delved into. Believe the hype.
Notable Tracks: “Insentience”, “Familiar Ghosts”, “A Particularly Cold September”
FFO: Enslaved, Immolation, Anaal Nathrakh without the industrial sound