Gravetemple Defy Convention on Impassable Fears
What exactly makes a record extreme metal in 2017? This question, though only ever raised implicitly, has been at the forefront of my mind on each and every spin of Gravetemple‘s new ralbum Impassable Fears. Although nominally drone, Impassable Fears is seismic, oppressive, and grinding, all traits hailed as hallmarks of our hallowed genre. It is a challenging, at times dynamic listen best played loud, and Gravetemple’s ranks include luminaries widely recognized for their immense impacts on the genre. So is Impassable Fears metal, or perhaps even more importantly, what is metal? Read on to find out.
If the name Gravetemple is unfamiliar, take a minute to familiarize yourself with the legendary performers that lend the relatively unknown group its stellar acumen. Gravetemple is the brainchild of Stephen O’Malley (best known for his earth-shaking guitar work in Sunn O)))), Oren Ambarchi (a live member of Sunn O))) and guitarist in Pentemple), and Attila Csihar (mouthpiece for Mayhem). The trio has been concocting esoteric, mind-shattering drone since 2006, but had the line-up ended there, we wouldn’t be having this Aristotelian discussion of genre.
No, after the release of The Holy Down, Gravetemple recruited ex-Blood Duster/Deströyer 666/Hobb’s Angel of Death skinsman Matt “Skitz” Sanders to the fold for a short Australian tour, and his momentous polyrhythmic assault forcefully dragged Gravetemple into the metal pantheon and left a lasting impression on the original trio. Listening to Impassable Fears is akin to pressing play on two very distinct records simultaneously; although Skitz is no longer listed in the band’s lineup in press material, the recorded percussionist (likely Ambarchi) does his best kraken impression on his drumkit while Attila leads you with mantric penitence through a grinding mill of drone. It’s off-putting, even schizophrenic at times, but it’s certainly a compelling approach, one that bears fruit upon repeated listens as the two opposing structures collide to create a type of binaural trance in the listener’s mind.
It seems strange to describe anything even adjacent to drone as “dynamic,” and yet dynamism is exactly what the drummer brings to the table here, even as he seemingly tumbles down a very long staircase with his kit, legs and arms and toms all akimbo. His is a manic energy most akin to that of Morgan Ågren, and just like Ågren, his mercurial approach becomes the driving force that pushes you kicking and screaming through those crushing drone mill stones. The drum performance grows in intensity, complexity, and captivation with each repeated listen, sucking you further and further into Gravetemple’s dark world as you desperately eke out way points and cairns to find your way amid the tangling snares of percussive cacophony. It’s a metal as all hell performance.
That’s not to say that O’Malley, Ambarchi, and Csihar are painting drone by numbers, either. O’Malley’s reputation for crafting hypnotic chords amid the dense lower registers stands, but it is the way that O’Malley’s notes juxtapose against Ambarchi’s and the interplay between screaming leads and terrifying chasms of negative space when the drones fall silent that truly shine. Songs like “Elavúlt Földbolygó (World Out of Date)” and “A Szarka (The Magpie)” crush and pulverize listeners like a greedy Charybdis and Scylla, but the band is content to toy with atmosphere and tone as much as texture and weight. “Athatolhatatlan Félelmek (Impassable Fears)” is a leering, creepy track that uses understated vocals from Csihar that bounce and reverberate like creaks and cracks in a haunted mansion to undermine listeners’ sanity and really set the mood for the final dark ambient track.
Speaking of Csihar, the equally elusive and affable frontman brings a surprisingly sweeping range to his performance on Impassable Fears. Across the three non-ambient tracks, Attila bellows out arcane mysteries and alchemical profanities in an effort to guide listeners through their deepest fears, and he does so in a surprisingly varied and perfectly suited manner. Csihar teeters between priestly spoken word and demonic growls on “World Out of Date” and “The Magpie,” only to devolve into an atavistic whisper and shriek in “Impassable Fears.” It’s an interesting vocal performance, one that will likely not always suit your tastes, but it is refreshing to hear a vocalist alter his pitch and tone to suit the music.
“The aim is to break boundaries and to find new horizons via the challenging of our own concepts of existence via the channels of musical trance. To me, it is like a contemporary way of Shamanism. The Shaman in our ancient Hungarian tradition is a person who can see both the material and spiritual worlds and himself or herself is the bridge or the channel between. The connection to our deepest inner self is very primal and, in a way, sometimes infantile. We humans have encoded instinct to survive which ends up in the ‘Impassable fear’ of Death. We challenge that primal fear by expecting whatever comes in our way on our musical journey. It’s about accepting whatever that each moment brings… Gravetemple is very special because here we are seeking trance while playing and recording music together. Almost like a spiritual experience.”
So, to return to the question at large, is Impassable Fears a metal album? The short answer is a resounding, “No!” While it has all the trappings of a metal record (eldritch lyrical content, crushing tone, challenging execution), it is sonically much closer to a progressive-tinged noise album than a proper doom effort; the entire thing is awash in layers of noisy sediment, the walls of static often broken only by what sound like sampled explosions from deep within the earth. The long answer, though, is a bit of a begrudging “Yes.” On Impassable Fears, Gravetemple have concocted an album that’s multifaceted, engrossing, demanding, and as heavy as a black hole. It’s spiritually and aesthetically akin to metal, even if there’s nary a true riff or headbanging moment to be found. But, most importantly, it defies convention, something that was once the true lodestar of this genre.
For managing to craft an intriguing, even intoxicating album within a typically off-putting subgenre, and to do so with such aplomb that even the throwaway ambient tracks and short duration can be ignored, and to pull it all off with such a surprisingly metal feel, Gravetemple earn: