Mournful Congregation - The Incubus of Karma - (9/10)
Published on March 20, 2018
A Monument to Sorrow and Penitence
I’ll admit I don’t like a lot of modern doom metal for a number of reasons but funeral doom (along with drone, stoner, and I guess sludge on occasion) manage to encapsulate most of them. There’s too much self-indulgent dragging about, an excess of reverb mostly used to obscure mediocre riffing, and a lack of justification for overlong song lengths with little variation in structure or harmony. Of course, it’s not hard to find various examples of this being proven very wrong but it tends to be with bands that are stylistic outliers, “traditional” in their execution, or fused with other genres like death or traditional heavy metal. Enter Mournful Congregation who alongside Thergothon, Mordor, and Skepticism were among the first bands to play this particular subgenre. They are closest overall to the first of these bands with the impressive compositional prominence melody has played throughout their career having first come to full fruition with their sophomore magnum opus The Monad of Creation from 2005. After two more albums from 2009 and 2011 then a two song EP in 2014, they have finally returned with perhaps their most monumental work yet. Clocking in at an hour and 19 minutes, The Incubus of Karma is intentionally not made to be an easy listen, their longest album to date and perhaps their most complex work to date. While people who normally dislike funeral doom metal probably aren’t going to change their minds listening to this, Mournful Congregation continue their tradition of articulate and carefully detailed composition in a genre whose fanbase usually praises single-minded plodding and slogging.
Mournful Congregation’s sound is quite layered not even by doom metal standards but even when compared to more advanced death and black metal bands. While the rate at which riffs change and new sections emerge isn’t anywhere near as frequent or as fast as Cruciamentum or Suhnopfer, where they have most of their competition beat is the glacial gracefulness with which their magma streams of layered harmony emerge and coalesce, creating monoliths of melody and space that don’t so much overwhelm as they gradually submerge the listener. While the guitar is typically the instrument we pay the most attention to in this subgenre, Mournful Congregation push it further to the forefront not just with powerful broad stroke ringing chords but an emphasis on dual guitar harmonies that is as vital to their sound as it would be in a power metal band. At times, this results in some impressively expressionistic solos, focusing less on articulate lattice networks of quickly picked notes as much as carefully straining a few particular intervals for a soulful, evocative atmosphere. The rest of the instrumentation is quite simple with drumming primarily working in slow, staggering beats that add a degree of motion and weight and bass folding behind riffing. The vocals however deserve special attention; they’re “harsh” but not necessarily aggressive and almost sound whispered in spite of the abyssal depths that comprise their range. They hover just below the surge of every powerful lead that ecoes out, using lengthy single-syllable growls with a slightly wet, drenched tone that make them to a distant echo of some cavernous beast carried in the wind.
For some this can be difficult to catch at first as much of the intricate twin guitar work is not immediately obvious in its complexity. It’s primarily based in the upper registers, focusing on carefully nuanced leads in many cases without much in the way of solid riffing underneath them. When more conventional riffing does appear it’s usually simpler, resounding chords that work to harmonize and mirror the root of the leads but there are a few occasions where they go for straight up crushing chunk riffs though these are fairly sparse, mostly used to set the stage and lead into additional melody. However the best parts of the album when both guitars do a kind of slow motion counterpoint; one will usually ring out with a few sparse notes on the lower registers and the other will slowly weave these articulate arpeggiated melodies through the reverb, using but a few notes but achieving maximum mileage from each with superbly good placement. Sometimes the order is switched such as in the first quarter of the colossal “A Picture of the Devouring Gloom Devouring the Spheres of Being” which starts with more active lead phrasing but switches to the rhythm guitar moving upfront to harmonize with the former’s now simplified notation with denser phrasings that wouldn’t sound out of place in the repertoire of epic doom bands such as Candlemass or Solitude Aeturnus. They are considerably slower and more angular but they bear a very comparable tonal character in their execution.
Structurally, this album is the band’s most ambitious since 2005. Each track is a self-contained story essentially where the stark character of even the simplest riff represents a grand striding motion. While the slow tempo and riffing does mean that repetition is inevitable, compared to the majority of their subgenre compatriots, this is outright progressive. The very, very gradual playing allows a melody to make its shape quite clear in the opening minutes of a song and gradually Mournful Congregation then disperse its individual components through heavily layering polyphony as both guitars hold a kind of dialogue with one another across some pretty long songs. Intensity picks up through these seemingly subtle changes as the meditative becomes the ominous or the serene turns into the severe. Each one however ends on powerful and I might even dare to say an uplifting note. Just as important as their ability to cram their songs full of material is their ability to conclude them and on this album we hear these Australians at perhaps their most cinematic. Listen to the final four and a half minutes of “Whispering Spiritscapes” for example, opening its heavenly ascent (or descent if you’re the glass half empty type), riding on the momentum of a short solo over a stream of gently reverberating ambient riffing as it takes but a fragment of said solo and uses it encapsulate all prior melodic tension with the grandiose, hall-filling intensity of a church organ and Gregorian choir working in tandem. “Scripture of Exaltation and Punishment” runs on a similar idea, using two disparate yet coordinated solos (seriously “dual guitar solos” is not what we associate with this subgenre) and gradually having them converge into one unified duelling motion, even using a subtle backing synth to ride on this cascade of power.
So does it topple The Monad of Creation? Any of you long-time fans reading this were probably wondering this the whole time. Personally I would say no but goddamn if it doesn’t come really, really close. It is a change of pace with just how surprisingly jam packed it is even by their standards and there’s quite a bit much to keep a track of at points. It also has easily the best production of their career: loud and booming yet draping its guitars in a polished shimmer that makes every note resound with absolute crystal clarity. When it reaches moments of raw intensity, it does so with a gracefulness that puts the majority of progressive metal to shame even when it is a little self-indulgent. However it isn’t quite as structurally sound, relying on a higher quantity of smaller details amassing together rather than the colossal, singular strokes of that album. It doesn’t possess the same breathing space either with its quieter, more ambient moments or its mastery of using such simple melodies to create evocative landscapes of sorrow and reflection. Still, this is easily some of the very best funeral doom metal of the last decade and operates at both a level of creativity and expertise that eclipses. It’s not so much a case of “this is an inferior album” but rather “this album shows a change of pace and objectives” and on its own merits and by the standards of the rest of their discography, this is elite and easily among the best metal of only two months into 2018. Even if you aren’t really a fan of the style or your comfort zone is more like Below and Trouble than it is Lycus and Esoteric, I would recommend this album as a good entryway into the genre, bearing many classic doom and traditional metal ideas but taken even further. This was more than a worthy return for one of Australia’s elite.