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Metal’s relationship with the long song has undergone some pretty significant changes since Black Sabbath first showed us what nine minutes of “Megalomania” might sound like.
In the halcyon days of trad metal in the ’80s, bands would only stretch a song beyond the 10-minute mark if they had constructed a true epic, with hooks and riffs for days. That song would almost certainly be the album’s centerpiece. The band would even print the track times on the back of the album sleeve, as though to clue you in: Hey, asshole, pay attention to ‘Rime of the Ancient Mariner.’ It’s important.
The ’90s saw the rapid proliferation of doom and black metal, both of which made the long song a more central part of the heavy music conversation. Regardless, it was still pretty novel to have enough riffs lying around to pen a “Kathaarian Life Code” — or a “Dopesmoker.”
Today, we’re desensitized.
In 1995, Ash Borer’s Cold of Ages, with its four songs clocking in at 17, 11, 18 and 15 minutes respectively, would have intimidated the shit out of us. Today, it’s commonplace. Add it to the pile with everything else on Profound Lore and Southern Lord. Nothing to see here.
This is, of course, a ridiculous way of thinking. It still takes an incredible amount of chops to pen a song that lasts an entire side of vinyl and keep it consistently interesting, and the mostly anonymous dudes in California’s Ash Borer have those chops.
Last year’s little heard but excellent self-titled debut LP caught the ear of a handful of fans and critics who were paying enough attention – as well as Profound Lore mastermind Chris Bruni, who released its follow-up. Everything that the self-titled did well, Cold of Ages does better. If we eventually decide once and for all that Cascadian black metal exists, this will be every bit as canonical as Two Hunters and The Mantle.
Like much of the best atmospheric black metal, Cold of Ages is at its best when it successfully pits grandeur against decay. These songs are monoliths, but they’re cracked and eroded and crumbling from the inside. For every soaring female vocal provided by Worm Ouroboros frontwoman Jessica Way, Ash Borer full-timer K answers with something deeply pained and ugly. Each trancelike passage gives way to a furious riff. Each quiet moment is uprooted by chaos.
It only takes the first four minutes of album opener “Descended Lamentations” for Ash Borer to show the majority of this range. After a tantalizing keyboard intro, bass, guitar, and cymbals are introduced one after another until a brief pause unleashes a flood of riffs and tortured screams. A bit later, keyboards return with a haunted house spookiness that wouldn’t sound out of place on a Ghost record, but K’s vocals ensure that the experience remains harrowing. For 17 minutes, “Lamentations” showcases damn near everything a black metal band on top of its game should be able to do – and it isn’t even the best song on the record.
The band Ash Borer is most often compared to is Altar of Plagues. That’s fair. Both bands utilize the long-form black metal template to communicate their brand of impenetrable darkness. Both call Profound Lore home. Both destroy minds and reap souls.
But there’s a dynamism to Ash Borer that even those mighty Irishmen can’t quite match. It’s there in the way long stretches of “Descended Lamentations” and high water mark “Convict All Flesh” resemble the funeral doom of Mournful Congregation and Loss, and in the way the band can turn that into thrash-paced aggression on a dime without it sounding forced. It’s there in the three-minute ambient outro to “Phantoms” that follows eight minutes of the most frostbitten black metal one can imagine coming from California, and in the clean electric bass that welcomes closing track “Removed Forms” like a late-career Steve Harris playing with Isis.
Ultimately, Cold of Ages works because it remains so life-affirming, even while it obsesses over death. The post-Weakling black metal movement in the United States has become as overrun as the original Norwegian scene was with pretenders, coattail-riders, and hacks. In this fucked-up sphere, where a rudimentary knowledge of genre touchstones is so often equated with artistic relevance, we need more bands like Ash Borer. May they forever bludgeon us for 15 minutes at a time.
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HEAR COLD OF AGES
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Ash Borer – “Descended Lamentations”
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Ash Borer – “Convict All Flesh”
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BUY COLD OF AGES
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