Review: VircolacMasque

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After a day of toiling in the fields, the serf walks toward town beside the imposing walls of the castle. He trails his callused fingers across the stones, the cold surface mirroring the glares of the nobility from their guarded towers. To them, he is not so far removed from the parasites that nest in his hair. A couple of rough-hewn coins clink in his palm; they will serve to drown his spirit in spirits at the local tavern, watering a seed of resentment and hatred that grows with each passing day. Visions of violence flicker in his mind, and the one thought that keeps him from lashing out is the prospect of an eternity in the pit of fire—a weak deterrent when every morning is a fresh hell.

On their debut LP, MasqueVircolac build on the flea-bitten death metal sound of their EPs, plunging listeners into the filth and wickedness of medieval Europe. While Masque isn’t a concept album per se, the band’s aesthetic (S K E L E T O N S) and songwriting choices suggest a shared world between tracks. The battering ram blasts and sword n’ board lyrics of “Titan” evoke the chaos of a battlefield—the brute physicality, the commotion of steel on steel (think war metal, but also music). When folks in the Middle Ages weren’t dying over the petty quarrels of royal families, they flocked to houses of God; the processional quality of the somber, doom-oriented sections of “Titan” and “The Long Trail” recalls the echoing interior of a cathedral, built high to strike fear in the lowly.

This archaic atmosphere is strengthened by the album’s production, which splashes a coat of mud over Brendan McConnell’s guitars without obscuring any details. As on past releases, McConnell seems at home in the grime, penning addictive riffs that reside somewhere between tech death and a bunch of rabid weasels fighting in a ditch (that is to say, they’re loose without being sloppy). There’s a meanness, a confrontational sound to the guitars that staggers through the album like a piss drunk peasant, culminating in the nauseous “Tether & Wane.” Far from the band’s usual blackened death metal style, this track flirts with noise rock, dissolving into shuffle beats and boisterous basslines that challenge the audience to a dizzy tavern brawl.

Like mongrel hounds, each song contains multiple bloodlines, influences that converge to create new beasts. Colin Purcell’s crisp, deliberate drumming in “Masque of Obsequious Venality” is a far cry from the murk of the preceding music; it’s this adventurous quality that lets the album burrow into the skin so effectively. Whether channeling Pallbearer‘s melodic doom or getting spooky with witchhouse-certified synths, Vircolac avoid the static songwriting that makes so many extreme metal albums a chore to listen through in full. Some songs wither and fade with a whimper. Some approach madness and return unscathed, while others succumb to the poison, crashing dead with little warning.

Laoghaire’s intelligible (yet oh so phlegmy) vocals lend a theatrical flair to the album, and together with the many moving pieces, Masque becomes more than a collection of songs. It’s musical storytelling, where the wooden thud of a kick drum becomes an executioner’s boots across the gallows, and the clanging of Jason Keane’s bass calls to the faithful like church bells.

Whether swathed in ermine robes or threadbare rags, all flesh is a mask. Underneath, the same bones and blood perform their duties: providing structure, providing time. Vircolac‘s latest memento mori serves a dual purpose; it’s at once entertainment and an important reminder to members of all walks of life: tomorrow is never guaranteed.

4/5 Flaming Toilets ov Hell

Masque is out now on Bandcamp.

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