Excessive, uninspired and misguided
Monotheist was the unexpected second wind in Tom G. Warrior’s lengthy and storied career – a peerless, bold and unique album from one of metal’s most influential and iconic artists. But with internal tensions splintering Celtic Frost, it was destined to be a singular flash in the pan, a one-off that stood as an incredible epitaph but also a comeback story being cut tragically short. That is, until Tom came roaring back into the spotlight with Triptykon and this album, a new project made to keep the momentum built up on Monotheist going. It’s a third wind of sorts, and at the time must have seemed like a truly rousing second comeback. The presentation of the album – the absolutely maximalist production, its roaring opener, even the H.R. Giger cover art which is of course a subtle nod to Tom’s glory days – only furthered this feeling, and at the time it must have been a truly exciting development in metal to see a veteran artist come back with something so vital and world-destroying; not only had Tom seemingly lived up to Monotheist, he’d even exceeded it – or so many of us thought.
However, as the years have drawn on and the dust has settled, I can’t help but feel this album sounds a lot less spectacular than when it was first released. I wasn’t around at the time to listen to it so I can’t say for sure, and this album’s extremely strong performance in MA’s end of decade poll is strong evidence to the contrary, but nevertheless once I’d actually grown acclimatised to Tom’s Monotheist era sound, that album and this album’s successor Melana Chasmata have both risen to be some of my favourite metal albums ever made. This on the other hand, never really reached those heights for me. It’s absolutely a decent, extremely professional and laboured over album, but it falls far short of the bar set by Monotheist. And with the release of Melana Chasmata, I think the flaws of this album are more evident than ever – indeed, directly contrasting that album’s musical contents, presentation, overall ethos and goals with this one’s pretty clearly illustrates where Tom missed the mark here.
A rundown of the style here is necessary of course, especially as it is a very unique one even after all these years. First employed on Monotheist and extended through longer, more winding songs and a more extreme tinge with Triptykon, Tom’s particular brand of goth/doom is one that really reduces the guitarwork and metal in general down to a very simple, primal state, and then amplifying the entire affair to galactic proportions. The riffs consist of gigantic, crushing yet catchy chords and grooves played through with a mind-bendingly big and heavy guitar sound played across lengthy compositions that are draped in a suffocatingly thick, dark and gothic atmosphere. Tom’s vocals range from croons to wails to whines to barks to growls, all the while deeply impassioned, pained and tortured. Subtle flourishes such as horns, pianos and strings round off and embellish a sound that is absolutely gigantic in presentation and heavily focused on sheer atmosphere, emotional weight, guitar texture, compositional power and of course crushing heaviness. What results is a one-of-a-kind, terrifyingly dark, deceptively complex and multi-faceted sound that is the sound of metal’s most basic elements animated with the most potent occult magic.
The biggest overall problem with the album is the mentality that Tom was working under when making this album, or at least the mentality that can be inferred from the various creative decisions here. To put it simply, this album is striving to be ‘Monotheist but more’, because at every turn it’s obvious that Tom is striving to outdo his immense efforts on that album, which really harms the finished product in numerous ways. This is so apparent that it’s perfectly represented just by contrasting the different guitar tones used on the three albums, which are vital components to the style employed as it is so driven by texture and atmosphere. While on every album they sound absolutely massive, truly heavy and crushing, there is a distinction to be made between the smoother, heavier, more percussive sound on Monotheist and the thinner, crunchier and even more textured sound on Melana Chasmata. On this album however, he goes for exactly the same tone as Monotheist‘s but louder. This really does encapsulate the differences between the three; the elder and younger siblings are subtly different beasts in their own right, while the middle child here seeks to ape and outdo the elder with no subtlety to speak of. The production in general is very much in line with this as well – Monotheist was loud and polished but the music was still spacious and everything came through great, while Melana in general sounds a bit thinner and tighter to make the entire arrangement a bit more visceral and direct. This album meanwhile just sounds like Monotheist but even louder – the guitars, drums, bass, all of it – and critically a lot more cluttered. The drums take up more space than they need to, and the resulting lack of clarity makes the music less nuanced and a bit messy as the instruments start to bleed together a bit too much. On first impact – as in, once ‘Goetia’ first bursts into life – it sounds even more extreme and insane than its predecessor but 11 minutes and one track in it simply gets tiresome, never mind the numbness felt when the 70 minute mark is reached.
Compounding the issue of less dynamic production is that the album as a whole isn’t varied nearly as much or as successfully as those other two albums. Monotheist and Melana Chasmata both have numerous softer, more tender and emotional tracks all over them. They serve to spice up the album with some eclecticism and break up the tracklist’s doom metal crushers and make them all the more impactful by enhancing the atmosphere of the album as a whole and preventing the listener from growing numb to them due to an overwhelmingly heavy tracklist, as 75+ minutes of this sort of material would do to anyone. On this album however, the only softer moments present are the first half of ‘In Shrouds Decayed’, the sub 2 minute interlude ‘Shrine’, the piano break on ‘Myopic Empire’ and the 5 minute ambient interlude ‘My Pain’. These moments are a smaller fraction of the runtime compared to the other album’s softer moments, and they still don’t achieve much of what those other moments did. While they are a much needed break for the listener, these are honestly some of the least interesting moments on the album and routinely just grind things to a halt instead of carrying over the tension from the heavier songs like those other albums could. ‘Shrine’ is nondescript ambient filler that never amounts to anything significant, and while ‘My Pain’ has more meat on the bone in the form of vocals and more instrumental layers it still feels like an extended interlude and not a full song. Meanwhile the first half in ‘In Shrouds Decayed’ is Tom talking over reverby clean guitars that isn’t interesting at all, and the break in ‘Myopic Empire’ is a bizarre artefact that betrays the Monotheist era’s origins in the infamous Prototype demo. It’s also an unfitting and unnecessary tonal shift that kneecaps the song; this should have been a kink that was worked out of the song in the 8 years it took to see a proper studio release.
The failures of these quieter moments are smaller examples of a couple of other major problems that really, really bring the album down. The first of them is that the material written for this album simply isn’t as strong as what was presented on the other two albums. For all the extremity implied in the production, most of the material here is a lot more plain than anything on Monotheist or Melana Chasmata, heavy or soft. The softer moments of ‘In Shrouds Decayed’ fall totally flat unlike the moody, forlorn but still tense verses of ‘Boleskine House’. ‘Synagoga Satanae’ is a nightmarish and terrifying journey while ‘The Prolonging’ is a slog. There are no truly memorable and visceral grooves or riffs here like on ‘Domain of Decay’, ‘Breathing’ or ‘Tree of Suffocating Souls’, nor is there much catchy, flashy or dynamic drumming like on ‘Aurorae’ or ‘Black Snow’. With a handful of exceptions, none of the tracks here stand up in any way to their counterparts from the other two albums. In the pursuit of ‘Monotheist but more’, Tom has Flanderised his sound on this album and stripped it of subtle yet essential elements like tension building, hooks, and generating atmosphere, all in the name of extremity – and all that’s led to is an album that is viscerally appealing on first impact when it’s loud (but mostly doesn’t stand up to repeated listening or as the album wears on) with some half-hearted, boring breaks along the way that grind the album to a halt instead of keeping the tension and energy up. The only times this album truly succeeds and stands up to those other albums in terms of the material being played is the aforementioned barnstorming opener ‘Goetia’ (which remains one of Tom’s best songs ever) and the devilishly simple ‘Shatter’ which is on par with ‘A Dying God Coming Into Human Flesh’ and ‘Aurorae’ for how ingeniously it uses such simple elements to make an incredible song.
The second problem is related to the first: a distinct lack of an atmosphere, which is a massive problem given how much atmosphere is integral to this sound. Critically, both albums that bookend this one have extremely strong atmospheres generated from the music that are very distinct from one another. The way I hear it, Monotheist is this inhuman force of nature. It’s the equivalent of taking a vacuum or the void, somehow giving it mass and density and blowing it up to be the size of galaxy. Listening to it is staring into an abyss totally devoid of light – you know something is there because you can feel it in and all around you, but you can’t see anything. The sole human voice in the album is Tom’s vocals; which are the whines, wails, groans and shouts of a weary old man who has spent aeons wandering this abyss as it torments him – the instrumentation (critically, the massive guitars) being the calls from the abyss doing just that. Melana Chasmata with its thinner, crunchier guitars, less spacious sound and more ragged, strained vocals leads to an album that feels a lot more human and direct. Instead of being this inhuman force of nature that is all around us, it’s a decayed and occult darkness that originates in our minds, as exemplified by the miserable introspection of ‘Aurorae’, the sheer resentment of ‘Altar of Deceit’ or Tom’s utterly tragic, pathetic whines and growls into the night over a lost loved one’s memories tormenting him on ‘In the Sleep of Death’. On the other hand, this has no feeling to speak of to me – apart from the impassioned rage of ‘Goetia’ and the catchy and entrancing ‘Shatter’, this is all a load of loud noise that is viscerally appealing but leaves no lasting impact, or boring quiet parts that break up the album a bit but also kill the energy of the album and aren’t atmospheric at all. By trying to be ‘Monotheist but more’, the essential nature of that album’s atmosphere, along with the need to balance beauty with brutality and integrating quieter moments into the album’s flow properly is completely lost in favour of being really loud and aggressive. It’s a truly tragic regression that harms most of the album’s ability to stand up to repeated listening, as the initial excitement of the heaviness of the song wears off and it becomes a load of excessive and meaningless noise.
With all these problems in mind another more minor issue becomes apparent – the length of the songs themselves. Taken as a whole and with bonus track ‘Shatter’ in tow this album is about as long as its siblings (77 minutes for this album vs. 75 for Melana and 80 for Monotheist) but while its predecessor had 14 full length tracks and its successor had 10, this only has 9 (discounting the short interlude ‘Shrine’) – so the songs here on average are a fair bit longer. It’s simply too much to hit a listener with an 11 minute rager of an opener in ‘Goetia’ and a near 20 minute crushing penultimate song in ‘The Prolonging’ and then for the rest of the album to be so overwhelmingly heavy and also not that interesting or varied. All of this said, one will note that my score still lies on the positive side of 50%, indicating that I still enjoyed this album in spite of these numerous flaws, because there are many things to appreciate here. For instance, taking one or two of the heavier songs in isolation shows that the material is a cut above most metal out there, with all the performances being top notch (Tom’s vocals and lyrics in particular) and the songwriting being generally solid, even if on these fronts they still fall short compared to anything from this album’s siblings. Messiness aside the production is certainly very high grade and far above most metal out there, and the presentation and aesthetics of these songs is incredibly grand and larger than life. The problem is that consumed as a pack and put into the context of Tom’s career, this is a very underwhelming album.
To my mind, Celtic Frost splintering was a minor setback; Tom was not going to be stopped from carrying on what he started on Monotheist. Rather than the band’s breakup potentially killing the momentum that album generated, I’d wager that *this* album is what did that, being an excessive, uninspired and misguided facsimile of what came before it. It’s not up to the standard of what came before or after it; in the pursuit of surface level, visceral extremity Tom wrote out all of the essential nuances that made those other albums so great. Melana Chasmata is Tom’s true third wind; it’s a recovery from this sophomore slump, the truly worthy successor to Monotheist on a quality level, and a genuine evolution of that album’s sound by being closely related to it stylistically yet still being its own unique beast. I realise I’m probably alone on my opinion of this album but still; I’d encourage anyone curious about this era of Tom’s career to check out Monotheist and Melana before this, maybe giving this one a chance afterwards if you can’t get enough of this sound. If you checked this one out first and were disappointed, give those other two albums a shot as they’re much better.