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Altars Of Grief : Iris

Canada's Altars Of Grief deliver an excellent immersive and cruelly emotional Black/Doom sophomore.

It's been a while since we heard anything from Saskatchewan's Altars Of Grief: summer of 2015, or thereabouts, with a split release that - in digital version at least - faded out with a superbly raw and bruised cover of Akira Yamaoka's 'Room Of Angel' (taken from the Silent Hill 4 videogame soundtrack). It's a track that utterly blew me away playing the game back in '04, and though the Altars... version didn't originally hit quite so hard, it's stayed resolutely on my favourites lists ever since - and steadily edged its way up there until I'd now consider it every bit the equal of the original.

Which is the main reason why I've held back a little on writing up their sophomore full-length. It's always a balancing act between getting a review out in something like a sensible timeframe, and in living with an album for long enough to let it soak in properly. Of course, there's always a place for first impressions, too, and some value to them. Mine went something along the lines of: The Eden House; Woods Of Ypres; great production; wow - cello; nice vocal variety; hmmm, never really liked double-kick drums...

Perhaps I should expand on those a little, since they're all still quite relevant after a longer immersion into 'Iris'. And I'll start with my only minor criticism, as it's something of a mixed affair. On the one hand, I do like the percussion section to have a significant presence, which the sharp and precise mix certainly gives, on the other, it's a little harsh to get too hung up about a Black/Doom band using some Black Metal staples, on the...erm, other other hand?...that super-fast monotonous battery is perhaps the dullest cliche in extreme Metal. Fortunately, first impressions are a bit misleading here: there are segments of extremely rapid drumkit-rattling which stick out, but more often than not they're rather subtly undermining the cliched aspect with extra half-beats and different patterns being fed into the frantic pace. And, since the album thrives on the contrast between crescendo and atmosphere, with a deliberately controlled chaos (not an oxymoron, in this instance) underpinning it, I'd probably have to concede that - whatever my personal taste on the subject - it does work here, in that context.

So, on to easier points. The Eden House: yep, they are a Goth Rock band, through and through. And some of the majestic, atmospheric build-ups on display here are very much akin to what they do, especially the opening 'Isolation' with its mournful strings, semi-acoustic guitar feel and swelling keyboards. Woods Of Ypres - sure, there's that blackened melodic Doom vibe - picking up the sadly vacated baton of David Gold's poetically downbeat and fatal worldview, and giving it an additional Post-Metal/Sludge twist and tweak. The remainder - well, those rather speak for themselves: the cello features throughout, and gets an exclusive spot for the brief 'Epilogue' outro, the vocals offer a multiplicity of different lines (with no less than five different vocalists appearing over the course of the album), and, yes, 'Iris' does have a clean and spacious soundstage that lets you hear everything that's going on.

So, whilst I feel Woods Of Ypres are a fair comparison in many dimensions, I should also add they're obviously not the be-all and end-all of what Altars... are doing here, merely a reasonable starting-point for 'if you like this, then this should be right up your street...'. And to chuck in another couple of names: EverEve's 'Stormbirds' and Cultus Sanguine's 'The Sum Of All Fears'. There's some overlap with 'Iris' on the Gothic touches and willingness to up the pace, but the main point of reference is the way they use a collage of clean through to hoarsely blackened vocals to create a similar, thoroughly convincing, emotionally charged mood of desolate misery. But, frankly, even if you don't like any of the above, Altars... are well worth an hour of your time to investigate: they're different and individual enough to impress entirely in their own right. From the ambiguous yet evocative artwork adorning the Hypnotic Dirge digipack release, through the brutal yet precisely balanced compositions, to the bleak and cruel misanthropy of the lyrics, 'Iris' simply drips with class in every dimension. Ironically - or perhaps not, despite the sometime uber-pace - it still comes closest, for me, to personifying the whole 'Silent Hill' franchise (games, books, and movies), in dragging the darkness out of the human heart and using it to fashion a complete parallel world of pain and psychosis so full of conviction and fervour that it acquires a reality of its own - making the earlier 'Room Of Angel' something of a self-fulfilling prophecy.

And the extra time I've spent hanging on to 'Iris'? Well, it's just proved to me this really is a keeper, and it does nothing but get better with repeated listening. And though the complexity of the compositions and arrangements reward with additional details, it's primarily the visceral immersion into the moods of wintry heartache and furious regret which grips ever harder. Vicious, compulsive, pummelling...and thoroughly recommended.

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Reviewer's rating: 9/10


Tracklist :
1. Isolation
2. Desolation
3. Iris
4. Child Of Light
5. Broken Hymn
6. Voices Of Winter
7. Becoming Intangible
8. Epilogue

Duration : Approx. 56 minutes

Visit the Altars Of Grief bandpage.

Reviewed on 2018-04-29 by Mike Liassides
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