The year: 2013. Humanity gets its first communication from beyond the stars, hidden on an Irish black metal band’s new record. And our new overlords don’t sound thrilled.
That may be the opening scrawl on my screenplay-in-progress, but it’s also a fair distillation of how I feel about Teethed Glory and Injury, the newest from Altar of Plagues. It achieves a beauty I find terrifying.
It also happens to be one of the least naturalistic metal records I have ever heard. Not in a post-Ride the Lightning, streamlined sort of way, but one that implies the album was deliberately composed, pieces slotted together on a computer screen or sheet music. Unlike most of their peers, AoP rarely tour, and these don’t sound like songs guys writing for a live audience could come up with. Even on tracks like “Scald Scar of Water,” which mostly clearly utilize tremolo picking and blast beats, these familiar elements further underscore just how strange and alien the rest of the song and album sounds. For every familiar blackened signpost, there’s a drum loop or droning vocal that renders it senseless. That track, for instance, ends with a quiet, insistent, electronic pulse, which arrives as the song quickly drops of a cliff, moving from loud to quiet in an instant, before glitchy beats and distorted bass tear the calm to pieces.
Both as movements and a single piece of music, Teethed Glory is very hard to unpack. Most of these songs tread the 3-4 minute mark, unheard of from a band that normally took 15 or 20 to make a point. But that time is used well: a track like “Found, Oval and Final” does more in a few minutes than most black metal bands do over the course of an entire career. Songwriter James Kelly and co. drop in industrial snare loops, chanting voices, and both chugging and trilling guitars until the songs are dense mattes of sound. Foreground and background trip over one another, and on first or fifth or tenth listen, the audience should hopefully be very confused.
But listen long enough, and these songs start to make sense. In fact, they start to transcend whatever one initially thought them capable of. Though there may be pain in Kelly’s voice when he screeches “I watched my son die!” on “Burnt Year,” his music makes you feel something far beyond his suffering.
Take standout “God Alone,” which understandably raised a few rankles from stodgier metal fans, both for its uneasy sound and video that focused on the movement of the human form through contemporary dance. But just as the clip’s subjects stretch the limits of their art’s technique, so too does AoP find a perfect collision of extreme music and minimalism. The song runs on one of two basic riffs, the most predominant of whom begins as two up-picks followed by a downward crunch, chee chee CHUN, resembling sheet metal being cut with a saw. But as the song moves, an additional guitar accents the down pick, and the drums shift, and shift again, changing the bit’s emphasis until what was the downbeat is now off, and then on, and again off. This second guitar then takes on a chugging part that syncs up with the original riff, the snare aligning with what sounds like a bell heard through a long, dark tunnel. Constantly undergirded by a droning synth, and eventually robotic voices and feedback, the piece terminates as every piece is thrown back together, piling part on part for the most original and thrilling 4 minutes of music you will hear this year. Imagine Philip Glass’s Music With Changing Parts compressed exponentially, filtered through a radio broadcast from 20 years in the past, and you’re getting there.
And best of all, it fucking rocks. There are parts on here you can definitely beat people up to, even if in the end you’ll be left with something of an unacknowledged existential crisis. In embracing their most esoteric influences, AoP has made metal heavier, filtering out most all traces of melody and leaving their fanbase with, often, pure abrasion. In a year when most of the bands affiliated with music’s extremes have focused increasingly on prettiness and harmony, Teethed Glory finds its catharsis in atonal violence. If this is the coming of a new world order, at the very least I’m going to enjoy the sound of it.