Premiere: The Crushing Heartbreak of Altars of Grief’s “Broken Hymns”
This week, Toilet ov Hell has proffered unto you a veritable cornucopia of brutal, fast, and heavy premieres, the end of which is still ahead of us! Today, however, I’m beyond excited to offer you an exclusive premiere of something a little different. “Broken Hymns,” the newest track from Canadian doom titans Altars of Grief‘s forthcoming sophomore full-length Iris, is a gorgeous, hypnotic song that simply oozes emotional weight. It’s quite possibly the most beautiful metal track I’ve yet heard this year, and I’m elated to share it with you. Get in here to be crushed by sorrow.
Iris finds the self-styled prairie doom quintet expanding their sonic palette beyond the scabrous misery of 2014’s This Shameful Burden with a greater eye to texture and emotion. True, the band’s past efforts showcased a strong sense of dynamics and color, with riotous blast beats upending tortured, clean vocal passages to convey heartache and grief, but those shifting riffs and kaleidoscope tones are even more seamless on Iris, accented by orchestral flourishes and a greater balance of down-tuned doom passages with quiet moments of gentle vulnerability. Additional atmospheric elements and layers of melody wash out much of the jarring death metal crunch, leaving only ruin – gorgeous, resplendent ruin – in their wake.
Bury me in my agony. Drown me in misery.
This evolution of the band’s sound is best captured in the way string arrangements provided by cellist Raphael Weinroth-Browne (The Visit, Musk Ox) play against vocalist Damian Smith’s pained laments in “Broken Hymns.” Throughout the track, but especially at 1:54, lilting string notes counter the gloomy riffs, setting the perfect backdrop for the tale of paternal love, heartbreak, and betrayal Altars of Grief wish to tell.
“The story of Iris is very much rooted in our prairie surroundings and deals with the struggles of addiction, sickness and religion. A father finds himself unable to connect with and care for his young daughter, Iris, who has fallen seriously ill. Spiralling deeper and deeper into his vices, and feeling rejected by Iris’ new found and unwavering faith, he gets into his car and decides to leave her behind. Somewhere along the icy road, he loses control of his vehicle and perishes. His purgatory is to watch helplessly as Iris slowly succumbs to her illness without him.”
The sorrow and loss of this concept is palpable in every fiber and every note of “Broken Hymns.” When the light orchestral elements, used so effectively to inject a sense of fate and desire, yield to a double-bass barrage around 3:24, listeners can feel the father’s dejection. When the clean vocals erupt over a traditional death metal passage, the sorrow is tangible. And when the track slows down again after pummeling your heart with an avalanche of blasts, allowing those massive doom riffs to really grab hold of your psyche and pulverize your last hopes into dust while Weinroth-Browne strains out one final lament, the effect is complete. All is lost.
But at least the passage is beautiful and the journey well worth it.
It’s easy to forget in our endless quest for ever more challenging and brutal sounds how absolutely profound the weight of emotion can be. On “Broken Hymns,” Altars of Grief remind us that there is no sound heavier than that of our own sorrow, and no art more powerful than that which stirs a yearning in our very souls. This track alone sets Altars of Grief on the lofty pedestal occupied by the likes of Woods of Ypres, My Dying Bride, and Bereft where metal fully embraces a deeper spectrum of existence beyond hate and anger, and I honestly can’t wait for you to hear the rest of the album.
Update: The song title on Bandcamp has been corrected to “Broken Hymns,” and I’ve adjusted my article in response.