By Jonathan Smith
This is one review that definitely goes into the “how have I not talked about this album yet?” pile. The second full-length release from Ireland’s Altar of Plagues is an achievement that builds upon (and surpasses) their first album in almost every way. White Tomb was (and still is) a fantastic album, but Mammal is the product of a band with a more unique identity and more matured skills. Its excellence is not immediately apparent, but its amazing qualities and rewards shine through after the few listens it takes to digest everything.
Part of what makes Mammal a challenging album is the combination of both Altar of Plagues’s traditional techniques and its overall murkier, thicker sound. The band’s use of ambient passages both as intro and as connecting strands between heavier sections is familiar, but if I may compare the effect to weather phenomena, this time it envelopes the listener like a thick fog rather than a calming mist. The bass and drums are front-and-centre here, at times almost smothering the guitar riffs. This approach is strangely refreshing in its difference from so much traditional blackened metal, and makes it almost impossible not to catch oneself head-banging to the pronounced rhythms.
When not out-and-out getting lost in the album’s emotional swirl, the band’s use of familiar lyrical themes of disconnection from ecological knowledge, and its consequences on many levels for our sense of selves, cements their thematic affinity with fellow black metallers Wolves In The Throne Room and other Cascadian acts. However, while there is spiritual angst found here, it’s less religious or pagan-esque in its mindset and more about the creeping intellectual realization that we are increasingly and perhaps irreversibly alienated from our own planet.
Lengthy opener “Neptune Is Dead” carries on White Tomb‘s tradition of taking its time to start up, building the mood and atmosphere until it reaches a cathartic breaking point almost two minutes into the track. By the time bassist/vocalist Dan Condon roars “I know that when I die the world is alive!”, the song has reached its apex and it’s a slow slide back down to a more ambient resolution. After another quiet intro, “Feather and Bone” erupts into a furious and addictive series of drum riffs before the guitars and vocals enter back into the fray. “When the Sun Drowns In The Ocean” tosses convention out the window with its recording of the act of keening, an ancient Irish expression of mourning. The rest of the track takes a break from the heaviness and largely follows a more dark ambient path, finally setting the stage for the return of anguished vocals and muddled guitars/bass on “All Life Converges To Some Centre”.
This release is going to be a tough album for Altar of Plagues to top, but as a listener I certainly hope that they will continue to tap into the creative well that has spawned this excellent work. While not absolutely earth-shattering in its impact (no pun intended), Mammal is a fantastic piece of blackened metal that is hopefully a harbinger of things to come.