Reviewed: Altars of Grief – Iris
“Every parting gives a foretaste of death, every reunion a hint of the resurrection.”
Prairie doom. Something about that designation seems incredibly fitting; on the plains, as often as not only the wind is to be heard, only a stunted tree here and there to be seen, and the surroundings are identified more by absence than presence. Doom’s inherent vastness, then, may be the perfect accompaniment to this environment. Its sprawling compositions, long and ponderous riffs, its willingness to let less be more stands in opposition to the packed-to-the-gills compositions and breakneck speed of tech death, the frenzy of grind and powerviolence, the chip-on-a-shoulder machismo of trad, et al ad nauseam. While it needn’t go so far as to be boring and undifferentiated, as the value of contrast is recognized by all truly good doom bands, nevertheless these bands also realize that compositions need room to breathe. And if there’s anything the prairie does offer in spades, it’s that.
If such a flowery description even applies, anyone could have envisioned that. What one can’t envision from afar is the psychological effect of prairie life on those who spend their lives there. Altars of Grief, by their own admission and having embraced the term “prairie doom,” can. Thus we turn to Iris, the second full-length from the Saskatchewan blackened doom quintet, following their 2014 debut This Shameful Burden. The latter capably established the group’s sonic palette by incorporating funereal and blackened influences, particularly through greater variation in tempo and dextrous drum work, while retaining its downtempo fundamentals and lyrical preoccupation with being a metal Eeyore. Yet at the same time it felt remarkably safe, as if they could have made a unified statement rather than a collection of isolated numbers, and could have further fleshed out their compositional influences, but chose not to. The result was a strong but not a stunning debut, well-executed but at times cautious, and leaving the listener with a palpable sense of “what if.”
Iris, by contrast, is nakedly ambitious as a near-operatic concept album, but presents a rare hybrid of being at once daring and self-aware, pushing its strengths without attempting to go beyond its capabilities. Evocative of Woods of Ypres yet decidedly non-derivative, Iris is a psychologically harrowing and emotionally fraught journey through addiction, love, illness, religious fervor, and of course, death- and without doubt, it will be one of the standout albums of 2018, perhaps a watershed moment in Altars of Grief’s career (time will tell), and quite possibly a modern classic. Iris is, by all measures, brilliant.
“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.” That’s the synopsis of Iris’ narrative, courtesy of Altars of Grief’s singer Damian Smith, and if that sounds a bit intense, you’re entirely correct in thinking so. The album has the structural heft to support such thematic ambitions as well, running a respectable 55 minutes through 8 tracks, none of which- save the 2-minute “Epilogue,” so located- run under 6 minutes. The album art is monochrome and haunting, the image of Iris before a church somehow inspiring dread rather than awe, doubtless to some ecclesiastic’s chagrin. The dirge-like intro, replete with strings, clean guitars, and muted cymbal work, is delicate but emphatic in making clear to the listener what the dominant theme is to be start to finish. All of this is to say that there’s nothing left unclear to the listener, from the outset, about what is to be explored: this is an album primarily about mourning …
… which is not to say that it’s a 55-minute funeral march. A major selling point of Iris is not only the stylistic variety that Altars of Grief employs, but the smoothness with which the group transitions between those stylistic motifs. 9-minte opener “Desolation,” following the aforementioned intro, is primarily downtempo and funereal in tone, heavy on strings and clean, readily decipherable vocal work, but by its end begins to risk collapsing under its own weight, if it were to be followed by a similar number. Seemingly in awareness of this, “Isolation” follows with high-speed blasting, aggressive chordal work, and higher-pitched shrieking, rarely letting up by any significant degree throughout; then the title track pulls back into mid-tempo work and a more balanced split between cleans and harsh vocals. The same interplay largely continues as the album works through its narrative, dynamic yet not jarring, and while it does lose momentum for brief periods, particularly in the less effective latter half of “Broken Hymn,” it never stumbles outright. The group thus shows an admirable facility in capitalizing on traditional doom and black metal, while not overplaying its hand in any one stylistic influence, and enjoys the ancillary benefit of Iris, despite its length, being an easy listen.
Easy on the ears, that is. The flow is there, the mix is deep and clear and notably accents the strings, the instruments have clearly defined roles and rarely overplay. Particular kudos should be given to the drum work, which is relatively assertive, particularly with energetic and nimble use of the kick drums. The strings are employed with restraint, generally content to serve in an accenting role (relieving, given how often they’re elsewhere used as a crutch to obscure boring and flaccid performances- I’m looking at you, ABBA Borgir). Execution and technical performance, therefore, is here difficult to fault within those parameters. The other side, however, is that those placing a premium on aggression or abrasiveness may want to look elsewhere. In many ways Iris is “delicate,” for lack of a better term; its black metal influences extend neither to the raw nor the trve nor the kvlt, but mainly to technique- to wit, careful employment of blasting sections and the accompanying tremolo picking. Genre purists will want to look elsewhere, as will anyone uncomfortable with an album whose heft resides in its narrative more than in any other characteristic, and whose cathartic aspect is placed in service of introspection, rather than vice versa.
Thus, like all things Iris is not without fault. However easy it is to experience on a relative scale, it’s still long. It still drags in places, however briefly. But its faults are decidedly minor; even Tommy and The Wall have numbers where my attention flags a little (fight me). After casting about for substantive complaints, I came up quite short. In their absence, what’s left is gloriously produced, confidently executed, self-aware and contemplative, and an exemplar of tragedy as an aesthetic ideal. Altars of Grief may be preoccupied with loss and despair, but Iris is nothing less than a triumph on all fronts. Well done.
Iris is out now on Hypnotic Dirge records. Stream and order here.
4.5 / 5 Rather Morose Toilets ov Hell