Divine Tragedy: A Review of Old Man Gloom’s “The Ape of God”
The eternal playwright once claimed that “All the world’s a stage, and all the men and women merely players.” We go through the motions, performing our menial little parts, swapping masks of joy and sadness, making our exits whenever the director finally calls us off. Music, then, is but one permutation of the grand tradition of theatre. Albums are the plays, the artwork and associated imagery the stage design, the atmosphere of the instruments the setting, the songs all scenes, and the voices, whether human or instrument, the players performing for our entertainment. Throughout the musical spectrum you’ll find examples of tragedy and comedy, melodrama and mystery. However, the works of the grotesque, the avant-garde, or the vulgar often find themselves distinctly in the hands of metal musicians. Well, it is time now to rejoice, humble acolytes of the theatre, because Old Man Gloom, the master performers of the macabre and profane, have returned for their magnum opus.
The Ape of God is a masterwork in divine tragedy, blending together the disparate elements of sorrow, terror, thrill, and anxiety into a profane epic of blasphemous effect. The players here have starred in other roles, each earning their stripes as luminaries of such diverse troupes as Isis, Converge, Cave In, and more. Rather than casting these influences aside, each actor embraces his past and future, donning a variety of cloaks and masks, all to the greater service of the play. As The Ape of God enfolds, it quickly becomes obvious that this is a group of performers in complete and utter control of every aspect of their medium, perhaps even of the audience themselves; scene, setting, atmosphere, lines, emotion, and drama are all designed and delivered with such an utterly convincing display of professionalism that we begin to question whether we are the ones witnessing the act or if we ourselves are part of the performance. Are we witnessing the marionettes or rather the master puppeteers in action?
Old Man Gloom deliver every act in this play with the utmost skill; each stands unique in its own right, and, upon first glance, seems utterly independent of the other songs. However, as you peer behind the thick drapes of smoke and distortion that permeate this album and cover the artists as they don a fresh collection of masks between each act, the full image of perverse grandeur takes shape. Each song is an individual tale in man’s fall from grace, an ugly affront in the descent from the divine. Each song serves its own purpose, wears its own cloak, and tells its own tale, but each is also beholden to the broader concept at large. When you finally witness the intricacy of the whole effort, you can’t help but to hold your tongue in surprised awe and abject terror.
The first two acts open with a percussive salvo, with the band deftly leaping from D-beat sludge with lunatic distorted riffs to a swamp-logged, menacing romp through Crowbar territory. However, as the scene changes, new characters seemingly appear, showcasing drum fills and lead guitar work that could put Isis and A Perfect Circle to shame. Just as quickly as the violent scene erupts, though, it is snuffed out in an air of miasmic horror while choral chants sing a tale of harrowing loss. New faces emerge yet again, this time employing crushing Neurosis songcraft and Gorgutsian dissonance that drive home the pangs of loss pervasive throughout the play.
The play reaches one of its two highlights in “Simia Dei”, a largely instrumental piece situated expertly in the album to create tension and prolong anxiety. Constructed around a precise, clockwork riff that harkens to Cult of Luna and that is accentuated by choral whispers, the song sets the pace for the second half of the album. The next track again explodes in a cacophony of distortion and percussive hardcore violence with a false transition that demonstrates this band’s craftiness and sleight of hand. The false drum introduction then gives way to the eerie chanting of the penultimate track, one that cuts through swaths of distortion and brooding chords to give way to a palm-muted chord that seems to represent the looming presence of Meshuggah, although it lingers only as a warped and twisted vision of the sterile environment those other performers inhabit. The final act, “Aarows to Our Hearts”, then announces its ominous presence with a deep horn or didgeridoo, cutting through the fog to reveal another mechanical riff reminiscent of Ephel Duath and simple drum work. The recursive drums, however, slowly pick up additional hits as the march continues, inevitably revealing the final trick up the band’s sleeve. As the climax approaches, a monolithic abomination of whirring gears and crashing ramparts emerges from beneath the stage as one final, infernal protest to the will of heaven. As Aaron Turner’s clean sung soliloquy gives way to growled issuances of defiance, accentuated by swirling riffs and coruscating drum tattoos, the entire edifice collapses and the actors choke, leveling the stage and leaving only destruction where the monument once stood. The act ends in a tumult of dissonance and crashing percussion, but there is no denouement, no final revelation. The band furtively exits from the venue as you linger stunned in your chair seeking resolution and wondering how the world can ever be made right again.
As you can likely surmise, this is a work of bold action and subtle nuance, of rising tension and direct violence, of cold precision and heartfelt emotion. It is the embodiment of the entirety of the human experience, told in a warped and twisted tale that reflects the ugliness of our own existence. This album, more than almost anything else you will hear or see this year, is a masterfully wrought testament to the powers of songwriting and selective detail. Every drum hit, every note, every growl, every chirp, every bit of static, and every hint of empty space is delicately put in place with both an awareness of its effect on the song itself and on the album as a whole. The production is not sterile, but it is also not too murky. The atmosphere serves the setting, which in turns serves the songwriting. All elements are in place to make this one of the most dynamic, challenging, and genuinely impressive performances you’ll hear all year. I could complain about the pacing, but the juddering starts and stops, rampages and plods all seem deliberately chosen to inject the work with the utmost amount of drama. I could complain about the lack of resolution, but the shocking climax also seems intentional, as though Old Man Gloom desires that we seek truth and meaning beyond the obvious. Ultimately, I can find no fault with this album