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Altar of Plagues - Mammal CD (album) cover


Altar of Plagues

Experimental/Post Metal

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Conor Fynes
4 stars 'Mammal' - Altar of Plagues (81/100)

I think, in the wake of Altar of Plagues' disbanding last year, I'm approaching Mammal differently as a listener than I did when it came out in 2011. The band's significantly sludgier (read: heavier) take on atmospheric black metal stuck me immediately upon first listen, but now that Altar of Plagues have completed their trilogy (with the even-better Teethed Glory and Injury), it's easier to see Mammal for what it is. At once adding dimension to the sound of the debut White Tomb as well as setting the stage for Teethed Glory's experimentalism, Altar of Plagues' proverbial middle child is arguably the most immediately compelling of the three, a quality coming at no cost to the album's ferocity and aggression.

If anything sold me quickly on what Altar of Plagues do on Mammal, it's the brilliant way in which they've manifested this style. As a label, post-black metal has a tendency to be a fits-all descriptor for any bands that distanced themselves from a dark or 'evil' atmosphere, to the point where it's virtually synonymous with bands like Alcest and Deafheaven. Of course- as it is with all manners of fusion- the balance of ingredients can be pushed ever so slightly, to create a completely different experience. In the case of Altar of Plagues, the result is every bit as dark and aggressively cathartic as I'd hope for in black metal, but post-metal has influenced the band's sound every bit as much. The crunchy guitar tones, bass-heavy mix and riffy performance aesthetic sound drawn straight from the bowels of post-metal heavyweights like Isis, Neurosis, and Cult of Luna- all bands that exorcise negativity in aggression in their own ways, but bands you'll rarely hear referenced in black metal music nonetheless.

Altar of Plagues virtually perfected their identity and execution on Mammal. The murky-yet-vast production is the perfect presentation for their sound, which is mixed in such a way that it demands presence and attention even on lower volumes. While the ritual repetition of riffs and textures doesn't offer a great deal of insight as to the band's technical skills, the guitar tones have been crafted beautifully, with a depth that distinguishes them from their more 'kvlt'-ish contemporaries. Beyond any other performance on the album, it's the drummer Johnny King that impresses most. As I wrote in my original review for Mammal, the aggressive organism of his playing gives the music a sense of stifling urgency- I hesitate to use the word 'thunderous' in fears of sounding cliched, but there you have it. Altar of Plagues also never fail to bookend their epics with noise/dark ambient passages. While innocuous enough, these segments are appropriately rough and foreshadow the deeper electronic expeditions Altar of Plagues would set off on with Teethed Glory.

Where Mammal falls short of its potential isn't so much the songwriting as its consistency. From the first listen onwards, I've stood by my opinion that "Neptune is Dead" is one of the best atmospheric black metal epics ever written. It's a case wherein the monotonous repetition has been perfected to a point where the listener is constantly engaged by a new layer, a new texture or eruption of a new idea. Dave Condon's half-howled, half-shouted vocals add a fitting sense of dread and negativity to the atmosphere- the band's harrowed admission that "I search for a greater meaning, and still I find nothing" strikes hard every time. "All Life Converges to Some Centre" has a similarly pre-Cambrian punch to it, and though not quite achieving the songwriting perfection of "Neptune is Dead", carries out the album on a powerful note. Less amazing still is "Feather and Bone", a track that emphasizes the post-metal side of the band to impressive effect; it's a strong continuation, but nonetheless feels overshadowed by its superior predecessor. The only track here that truly feels weak is actually "When the Sun Drowns in the Ocean"- Mammal's third track, now somewhat infamous for the sampled keening (that being an old woman's death-wailing, for those laymen out there!). While I've always thought the keening offered an eerie atmosphere and reinforces the longing for a more earthly past, the rest of the song carries much less weight. Over the course of eight minutes, Altar of Plagues constantly sound like they're building up to something, but the song never goes anywhere; there are no satisfying builds or full-bodied ideas to speak of. Perhaps it was the band's attempt to pursue a more experimental style within the album, but to date it's the one track on this album that's never bore any fruit for me.

Mammal lacks the consistency I would expect from a masterpiece, but make no mistake: there are plenty of masterful ingredients here. I am not surprised that Altar of Plagues took me by storm when I first dove into their music in 2011. Mammal expresses a certain uniqueness in its fusion of genres; the style they perfected here could have potentially fed multiple albums after this. With Teethed Glory and Injury however, Altar of Plagues would distance themselves from this post-black golden ratio, brilliantly (and not uncontroversially) mixing things up with added electronic interruptions. Now that Altar of Plagues has disbanded (presumably for good), it's likely we'll never hear the amazing style on Mammal refined to its own point of mastery. Even if Altar of Plagues were still around, I don't think they would dwell in one place long enough to do it anyway.

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Posted Monday, May 2, 2011 | Review Permalink

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