Embrace of Thorns - Scorn Aesthetics - (9/10)
Published on June 19, 2018
Unfurl the banners of absolute contempt.
Since the 90’s, Greece has been a world power in extreme metal, starting off with the legendary classic releases of bands such as Rotting Christ, Necromantia, Varathron, and Septic Flesh in the black metal category as well as latter day acts such as Acrimonious, Thy Darkened Shade, Spectral Lore, and Macabre Omen. In recent years it has turned its eyes towards the more sepulchral and savage genre of death metal with the legendary Dead Congregation becoming one of the most infamous of 90’s styled bands and a flagship for the oldschool revival. Bands like Soulskinner, Necrovorous, Crucifiction, Abyssous, Cthonic Aura, War Possession, and Resurgency would gain varying degrees of recognition in their wake but none of them were able to have the same impact as Graves of the Archangels or Promulgation of the Fall. After Dead Congregation guitarist Abomination Virginborn’s time with them, Embrace of Thorns morphed from a more calculated take on war metal into a blackened invocation of heresy and mortality. Making greater usage of melody and varied tempos to take riffing normally at home on an Archgoat album, they turn bestial primitivity into morbid majesty and create a distinct voice of blasphemous contempt refined through meticulous and insidious songcraft. After 2014’s lackluster Darkness Impenetrable, Embrace of Thorns have unleashed their strongest album to date and fully capitalized on all their congealing strengths since 2007.
Compared to much of the death metal out there today, Embrace of Thorns are definitely old school in spirit but they come from a much more different lineage than much of what is associated with the term. Incantation comparisons (groan) are understandable to an extent but while they do feature a number of slower sections and longer tremolo phrases, they avoid the tunnelling rhythms and fractured songwriting of that band and their recent disciples. These Greeks use a greater degree of melody in the vein of older Greek black metal with broader strokes of abstracted riffing, merging quasi-ambience and vicious primitivity of first wave black metal into the disciplined structures and over-arching narrative patterns of death metal’s recent elite bands. While it’d be a mistake to call them a technical band, there’s an impressive level of content in each track all coordinated with superb precision, moving through intricate and highly varied compositions at the level of the classic American death metal greats in their capability to handle a complex set of ideas yet using a blackened approach to harmony and riffing progression that helps it to avoid feeling very convoluted. All instruments benefit from a well separated and very clear production job, letting one better hear nuances and shifts in thematic patterns and how pacing suitably accommodates. While the older albums weren’t slouches in this department, they basically are a completely different band having essentially flung themselves light years into the future by comparison.
At the same time, there’s enough grit and meat on each member’s attack, from Rampike’s dense basslines to Archfiend DevilPig’s wet and bile-filled howls, making this the band and perhaps the 2018’s most well produced extreme metal album to date. Special commendations must be given to veteran drummer Maelstrom’s performance, laying down laser precise and avalanche-like rolls with a tenacity and speed reminiscent of Axis of Advance’s James Read. His performance on the last two albums by Greek astro-grindcore adventurers Dephosphorus hinted at his full potential but here he is perhaps the true star of the show handling tempo changes and adding extra percussive muscle to riffing that for most bands would feel as if it was floating unconcerned and unaffected by the frenetic drumming beneath. Herald of Demonic Pestilence has also unleashed his finest riffing thus far, imbuing an ominous sense of melody into devastating chord progressions and layers of angel-flaying riffs that in the hands of lesser bands would be too atonal to hold interest for long. His playing also hints at classic heavy metal influence especially when he unleashes his soloing though it’s closer to Thy Mighty Contract and His Majesty at the Swamp than Painkiller or The Number of the Beast. This avoids the uplifting radio friendly aspects that frequently happen when NWOBHM makes its way into extremity by purposefully choosing eerie and mournful intervals heralding an utmost damnation from which none escape.
With all of this in mind, the strongest and most important upgrade to their arsenal of intransigence is with their compositional skills. Their older albums used simpler, brutish structures to convey their invocations of hellishness but with Scorn Aesthetics, Embrace of Thorns shows a genuine maturity in their sound without any compromise of their roots, easily becoming the equals of bands like Cruciamentum, Obliteration, Denial, and Verberis. A whirling series of acerbic riffing comprises each track, utilizing a varied set of tempos and phrasings in order to advance themes in highly varied theatres of boiling conflict and the thunderous resolution that ensues. It is simple enough by itself but in the context of each song, individual portions build on one another gradually to unveil distinctly organized over-arching melodies whose forms become clearer as songs progress and their feverish atmosphere intensifies.
It is most noticeable in the previously elaborated lead guitar department, utilizing shimmering melodies not just for additional flair but also to demarcate individual portions of each track. These serve as checkpoints throughout the song and respond directly to the feverish intensity. However the band also convey this through the subtly shifting tonal character of the riffs themselves, utilizing varying lengths of picked segments or strummed chords that further alter songwriting direction while homing in on increasingly distinct melodies, searching not for sheer barbarity but an increasing sense of clarity and morose majesty. It’s a synthesis of death and black metal compositional strategies and technique that goes beyond a purely aesthetic mixture of extended blast beats and blizzard-in-the-background tremolo ripping. You have the labyrinthine and ever shifting mindset of a death metal band but tempered with the broader strokes of compositional motion and sweeping melody of black metal.
At only seven songs, the album feels considerably shorter than the rest of their discography even if in terms of overall length it is actually their second longest. However, there are very few filler moments with the band at their strongest on a riff-per-riff basis, all in the service of the most well-crafted songs in their career to date. Save for a few eerie non-metal intros, every track has a consistent sense of motion but never feels rushed or hurried, unveiling waves of putrid and mournful riffing all of which balances itself out with careful usage of changing pace and technique. The album at its heart hearkens back to the grimier, uglier, and truly ancient sounding parts of the underground realms of extreme metal yet while playing spot-the-influence isn’t hard, as a whole it sounds like a distinct statement of something that could only happen today. Scorn Aesthetics is not an ode to past greats and Embrace of Thorns are no longer merely a solid band with moments of promise. It is the work of two decades worth of dedication to the abyssic interstice where the virulent threads of early death and black metal meet and demonstrates a successful progression from a their early years as a feral monstrosity to the sorcerous masters who now would rule over large swathes of the burgeoning black-death realm. Highly recommended for fans of the finest works of bands such as Prosanctus Inferi, Doombringer, Lantern, Crucifier, Imprecation, and Charon.