Akercocke – ‘Renaissance In Extremis’

By Leo Troy

Since Behemoth’s 2014 game changer ‘The Satanist’, extreme metal hasn’t been the same. Sudden widespread acclaim and legions of starry-eyed admirers can be viewed as either good or bad depending on your allegiance to the darkest of the dark. Stepping back into this world are Akercocke, late ’90s progressive death legends of the UK underground last heard on 2007’s stellar ‘Antichrist’ before packing it up for a decade. The aptly titled ‘Renaissance In Extremis’ is their 2017 comeback: an assault of familiar yet expanded signatures crafted to intentionally shun the climate it enters and reclaim the band’s status as the eccentric masters of all things twisted.

For the already familiar, ‘Renaissance In Extremis’ showcases every aspect of the band’s multi-faceted arsenal with razor sharp clarity. Sinister death metal passages collide with technical guitar leads and expansive prog sections while the band’s well-known penchant for taking a complete left turn is omnipresent. Throughout its thrash attacks and winding early-Opeth-style flourishes, first track ‘Disappear’ is an overture of sorts, introducing these contrasting dimensions in snippets before each of the following eight tracks delve into more detail.

Then we’re treated to ‘Unbound By Sin,’ which switches between headbangable staccato riffs and moments of oddly catchy fragility, while later on ‘One Chapter Closing For Another To Begin’ focuses on atmosphere, ensuing heaviness dialled back until its closing black metal freak out. Elsewhere the band’s signature industrial electronics are scattered across the album’s landscape in the form of brief unsettling bursts, like Merzbow has crashed the recording session only to be quickly wrestled outside. But the biggest strength of ‘Renaissance In Extremis’ is melody, specifically in its more leisurely moments, like closer ‘A Particularly Cold September’s demented jazz fusion or the cinematic string-backed intro to the album’s centrepiece ‘Familiar Ghosts.’ It unfolds over three tension-filled minutes into a genuinely bizarre falsetto vocal complete with shards of cosmic synth.

However, the band’s more sophisticated dimensions are sprinkled with a newfound sense of both efficiency and precision. A decade-long hiatus seems to have awoken what feels like the beginnings of restraint. While songs are just as long and wild as ever, nothing is milked. Unlike previous releases, musicality never takes a back seat to excessive brutality or masturbatory escapism. Every moment lasts just as long as it should — that is the main difference between ‘Renaissance In Extremis’ and the band’s previous work. Where the most devastating moments on ‘The Goat Of Mendes’ or ‘Chronozon’ throttle you to the point of no return, ‘A Final Glance Back Before Departing’ and ‘Inner Sanctum’ dart between melody and dissonance naturally, dynamic shifts smoother than ever before.

Alongside his terrifying death growls, frontman Jason Mendonca’s plaintive melodic baritone is back and in full force. Vocal melodies are eerie, often slightly dissonant yet packed with enough unapologetic weirdness to make anyone smile, laid on top of guitars which dart from wiry to weighty in the blink of an eye. The result is hypnotising, superhuman and mechanical but from time to time, when combined with the rhythm section, occasionally lifeless. Still this is only occasional. As has always been the case with Akercocke, their strength is an ability to erratically conjure truly sinister moods. It could be argued that these robotic moments are yet another example of this. A less important yet related trait lies in the recording. Sometimes it seems like soundwaves are cut during a few of the noisiest climaxes and sudden transitions are punched in. While this is barely noticeable on a surface listen, it can subconsciously distract on a fifth or sixth.

Nevertheless, ‘Renaissance In Extremis’ is a constantly engaging listen. It’s like a decade away has allowed Akercocke to fully reevaluate their creative palette, to sometimes divert their focus from the darker colours and every once in a while stray into the light. It is this which makes the album less of an addition to the greater extreme metal scene and more of an expansion. From a band who have always been out of the box, we wouldn’t expect anything else.

LEO TROY

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