Monday, 27 March 2017
Release: 'Tabernaculum' (2017)
It would be too easy to label 'Tabernaculum' a magnum opus, to box it off and send it skyward amid the loftiness of similarly top shelf creations. As much as it is wholly deserving of the accolade, there would exist an indolence in such an action, and this long-anticipated full-length from Rebirth of Nefast is worthy of far greater trophies, far greater than the likes of Album of the Month, or even Album of the Year can ever truly bestow.
A record essentially 11 years in the making (from the advent of the auspicious 'Only Death' demo in 2006), 'Tabernaculum' is a veritable labour of love, though such a term may be unsuitable when utilised in reference to black metal. Like all staggeringly brilliant releases, it endured mixed fortunes over the years, wrestling rewrites and near abandonment, as Stephen Lockhart (aka Wann) found himself unwittingly helping to craft (via the art of studio wizardry) what we today know as the 'Icelandic sound', as well as operating full-time within acclaimed act Sinmara, and lending a live hand to Irish black metal powerhouse Slidhr, the dauntless project of longtime co-conspirator Joe Deegan.
In purely production terms, 'Tabernaculum' is a marvellously clean, tight and modern black metal record with quite an incomparable sound and compositional variety. This belies the level of heaviness on offer, most notable when the more funereal, hypnotic sections give way to twisted discordance and almost inhumanly precise blasting. Additionally, in keeping with Rebirth of Nefast's approach and output to date, the album is lean to within an inch of its life - all fat removed - nothing at all superfluous, despite its liberal use of layering and one hour plus duration.
Lockhart's studio time with noteworthy acts like Svartidauði, Mortuus Umbra, Mannveira, Dysangelium and Almyrkvi has been well spent, exposing him to the nuances of the best of contemporary black metal, as well as the curse of choice found within the profuse subtleties of music production. Indeed, the latter more than likely hampered the journey taken by 'Tabernaculum' from start to finish, but it was one circuitous route well worth the effort.
'Tabernaculum' is an overwhelming listen, impossible to truly absorb after first exposure. A lot of its majesty gives thanks to its deft use of atmosphere. Many black metal bands merely toy with the creation of dread or malice, inserting languid ambient passages before, between and after tracks that often equate to nothing but skipped filler. Through delicate layering across a broad frequency spectrum, balanced against some seemingly out of place and even upbeat guitar work, most of which could be considered very unusual for black metal, the record retains a portentous tactility throughout. Here lays the crushed global spirit...
Though first and foremost a black metal record, in the most rigid sense, it is the album's more unorthodox elements that truly differentiate it from anything else heard to date. There exists a sinewy warmth as melodies just about merge, as a riff far too blithe for its own good is suddenly accosted by an unexpected aggression and malevolence, akin to a fresh oil slick embracing an all too perfect sandy shore as an ochre sun rises - a devastating allure, realised.
Indeed, this spirit runs through 'Tabernaculum', its lyrics, its fantastically adroit accompanying artwork - a heaving, exasperated earth shuffling on under the weight of an ineffectual, fetid human kind, a comfortable acknowledgement of the end, wherein lies a beautifully redemptive quality. Very few, if any, black metal albums are as strikingly evocative.
Mention of the use of traditional instrumentation in black metal may perturb many, as thoughts of bodhrans and fiddles stumbling over bouncy riffing are truly the province of nightmares, yet 'Tabernaculum' employs the cello, mandolin and the sharp-sounding bouzouki, which backs up the majority of lead lines across the record to magnificent effect, credit again to that lavish yet astute layering.
As with many great releases, this, too, is best digested as one course, though each track is in itself a compositional masterwork, epic in scope, while also fervently and mercilessly introspective. Piece after piece reaches its crescendo with seeming ease, despite the tension that builds and builds, in a style that reminds of the always excellent Clint Mansell.
Buttressed by compelling, apt artwork and layout (Alexander L. Brown, Alex Karpouski, Joe Deegan, Gunnhildur Edda Guðmundsdóttir, Manuel Tinnemans), heavily metaphysical lyrical content and garnering the support of the imperious, French label Norma Evangelium Diaboli, as a black metal package, 'Tabernaculum' is quite perfect. It confidently presents itself as a crowning achievement, not only for Lockhart, but also for Studio Emissary and the future of Irish/Icelandic black metal collaborations. An unnervingly inspired work and thoroughly matchless on every level.