A 74 minute album takes dedication not just to make but for the listener to consume as well. When you think about it is the equivalent of a 3 hour movie and a lot to take in. Musically you would not be surprised at this sort of length from a funeral doom or epic atmospheric black metal band and it is the latter genre we find ourselves in the midst of from this “headless” cult led by Set Sothis Nox La, their first album in a decade. Is it the equivalent of a War or Western film, a Tolkien adaptation, an arthouse flick or an over talky flick by Quentin Tarantino? Well there’s certainly elements of all these amidst this sprawling 7 track odyssey. Time to dip in.
Firstly it is difficult to determine source of origin unless you knew just due to the vast array of language used here and you would be forgiven in thinking this is the work of a European act with the opening French spoken part of ‘Sovereignty.’ Brash and bold furrowing blackness follows with storm clouds thundering from the various players. This is highly atmospheric cleaving, solemn and mature stuff. A doomy air extends things and over the course of the album things are a little schizophrenic due to guests vocalising words by the likes of Georges Bataille in French, German and English. Here we get very pronounced Germanic cleanly elucidated in a style not a million miles from bands like In Extremo in a Mittelalter-metal style. I think I would have struggled if the whole album was sung like this but this is the only main example of it and sets things up perfectly for a dramatic, feral drop into obliterating driven black metal, thick with vocal screams and rasps. These sections are ones you are teased and tempted by and the diversity from track to track is huge. Second number ‘In Gloria in Excelsis Mihi’ is a clean about-turn with a folky acoustic guitar strum again very medieval in execution sung along to by a lady in French. There’s no denying its beauty although for me meaning is lost and would love a bit more explanation narratively. Those looking for sturm und drang will also possibly find this too much of a break from the blackness especially as like everything on the album it is a long segment clocking in at the 8 minute mark.
Another stylistic twist comes in the form ‘Runenberg,’ in raspy English this is best described as a track of galloping pagan metal bravado and fans of bands such as Moonsorrow and Kampfar will no doubt lap it up. There are some strange odd sounds dwelling in the midst despite it being relatively straightforward. Solemn crooned vocals and acoustic guitar strums decree ‘Hark The Battle Cry Is Ringing’ it sounds more like a lament in Valhalla at the end of a furious fight though and again breaks things up leaving you wondering how many wars we are going to encounter and what exactly is going on between them all. Bruising in is ‘Last Will’ a big blasting wall of contusion, the war is in full swing and last testaments should have been written. The shortest track on the album is at first the most furious and frantic although tools are downed after a while for some stygian atmosphere, ghastly croaks and some more spoken German parts again break up the madness and add to the “what’s going on exactly” confusion After this is time for a snooze ‘Sleep’ sounds like a grandfather clock ticking and being struck via a piano key. It’s rather odd and not particularly restful as the droning nature is split up with rage and nightmarish segments of full on black metal a bit reminiscent of early Enslaved. After all these different styles and emotions have been whipped up it is left to the massive finale of ‘Winternacht’ to wrap things up over a near 20 minutes running time, in suitably epic fashion. Thankfully it does so with cleaving, icy blasts and tumultuous riff work on the whole but be prepared for the ever encroaching touch of experimentation rather than a completely smooth ride.
Despite all the disparate elements going on here L’Acéphale have crafted an album that is surprisingly not that difficult to get into, certainly not when it comes to formulating a musical opinion. I’m not sure about exactly what is going on behind all this though but that kind of makes it all the more interesting. I guess it is a bit arthouse with plenty of war going on but the biggest thing to get your head around here is the fact that this group come from the USA, something I would never have guessed in a million years if I had not looked into it.
(8/10 Pete Woods)