Starting off as a one-man project playing blackened funeral doom Polish act Gurthang have come a long way since their inception back in 2010. 6 Albums on and now playing as a quintet, apparently they threw off the shackles of slow and ponderous beats around the time of their 3rd opus ‘Excruciato Anima Immortali’ in 2013. I had not particularly noted this on playing Ascension for the first time and as I settled down for a slow and involving journey it was not long before I was roused to life by the blackened dark metal before me. Songs are still long but also complex and as for the speed, well I had not expected blast-beats but I got plenty of them here. Founding member A.Z.V. may have provided them since the group’s origin but the marking point must have been when Turenn took over as sticks-man in 2015. Boy can he batter away and that is all the more surprising considering that he plays anything but the drums in the various other projects he is involved in. Don’t go expecting an all-out pillaging here though as Gurthang inject many moods and emotions within their song-craft and even if like me you are new to them Ascension is a highly rewarding and versatile listening experience.

At just over 12 minutes opener ‘In Void Again’ is the longest track by a couple of seconds and the instrumentation builds from moody and atmospheric to a surging strength with coarse, gravid and forceful vocals. There’s an immediate sense of maturity and seriousness about Gurthang and even though the album has almost an hour in length ahead of it you are well aware it is going to be a tumultuous affair that will keep you captivated every step of the way. The production here matches this and packs a weighty punch, I actually looked to see if perhaps V Santura had anything to do with this and although it would appear not, the sound and dark energy is the sort of thing you would not have been surprised to see his name attached to. Slow mesmerising effects occasionally break things up and are full of sinister and nebulous foreboding as you wait for the next assault, when it explodes and the track flies towards ultimate destruction there is almost an industrial speed with the drums warping at a massive mechanical and flattening velocity that takes your head clean off. This impressive start is strongly built upon. ‘The Great Silence’ has a funeral gaze at opening and caustically explodes, anger from the vocals and pounding drums meet scything guitar and a brutal but consummately forged backbone. I get the same sort of vibe here as listening to the likes of recent Dark Fortress and Schammasch as A.Z.V. spits out the words “I’ve seen the face of God.” I don’t think that particular meeting went that well and I would be interested to see the lyrical content fully; no doubting the seriousness of intent behind it here though for a second.

Different things crawl out the woodwork be it some clean chanting vocals augmenting ‘Mirrors’ or some highly evocative keyboard work further down the line giving a classical piano etching to proceedings. The overall feelings that are derived though are strength and power as this work bristles with them and at times overflows and explodes with potent force. Unlike the title ‘This Mortal Shell’ suggests there is nothing frail or insubstantial about what is going on within it; a dangerous and rugged battle going for whatever is left after the body collapse into dirt and seizing its very soul. Formidable throughout its left to ‘Solace’ to offer a concluding sense of comfort after an embittered and dramatic voyage. That’s not the way Gurthang work here though as the finale is another long and complex number wrought anger and a near alchemical energy. Sweeping out like a plague contaminating the land and turning everything to darkness, all that’s left is an all-conquering victor having seized their icy crown and looking over all the desolation left knowing that nothing will thrive here again. A.Z.V.’s remarkable vocal performance on this is particularly bleak and the corresponding guitar lines and melody leave it clear that hope is the last facet snatched away from the listener as silence descends finally once more.

Hitting like a bolt out the blue ‘Ascension’ has been a fantastic companion since I started getting my head around it and its touch is far from done with me yet. This is a keeper make no mistake and an album for grim and pessimistic times; revelling in it may not breed salvation but it’s an unforgettable experience that will certainly leave you feeling invigorated in the futility of life.

(9/10 Pete Woods)