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Ahab – The Giant

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There was a time, not too long ago, when I felt that Germany’s Ahab could only truly release one album. Their debut The Call of the Wretched Sea served as such a complete translation of Melville’s Moby-Dick into the metal idiom (moreso than Mastodon’s earlier attempt, even) that I felt that the band could only ever hope to resonate through basing their music off of that novel. And, as with all bands that base their lyrics off of one thing, I expected Ahab to run out of steam after their second album, eventually writing the same work over and over ad nauseum before finally breaking up in obscurity. To my surprise, this did not happen. Instead, 2008’s The Divinity of Oceans quite cleverly sidestepped this trap of music by reframing the band’s entire context not as a “Moby-Dick” band, but as a band devoted to the nautical mindset in metal, in now discussing the tale of the Essex (in much the same way as Cobalt is not about Hemingway as much as it is an exploration of American masculinity in metal through exploring Hemingway’s works). As with Cobalt, this worked better than I could have ever predicted. The riffs continued to crush, and the songs were as catchy and listen-demanding as before. While Call . . . was a better album, Divinity… clearly showed a band that was maturing in exactly the right manner given their interests and influences.

So here we are in 2012, and Ahab has just released their third album, The Giant. Where the first two albums where explicitly about whaling, be it fictitious or real, this third album forgoes that theme for a more general, atmospheric approach. No longer are the songs about specific whales or struggles, but rather they are more elemental in nature, simply exploring the idea of huge seabeasts lurking below the surface of the gargantuan oceans of the world, lumbering slowly through the liquid element. Likewise, the music itself has also become more elemental. The album’s first track opens with a clean, slow, almost jazzy passage that calls Earth’s Hex phase to mind, before abruptly shifting to raw, guttural death/doom four minutes in, like a quick, violent squall rolling in off of the North Atlantic. The second track does the same, only with guitar ambience that sounds almost cello-like. Daniel Droste’s voice is still as huge and deep as the Marianas trench, but his clean singing has also become refined, offering a strange midway point between My Dying Bride’s Aaron Stainthorpe and Attila Csihar. It’s not perfect (particularly on a par with other clean metal vocalists), but you can tell that Droste is passionate about his music and this passion easily translates to the recording, boding well for future work. In addition to these changes, the drums are not quite as cavernous here as on previous releases. The deep, sonorous “boom” of the detuned drums from Call . . . is now largely replaced with more standard tones that do not immediately come to one’s attention. However, the rhythms and patterns used are certainly more diverse now: the tempos of this album are no longer the uniform deepwater crawl of Call . . . or Divinity . . . but instead fluctuate between mid-tempo stomps and bottom-trawling trudge, in much the same manner as, say, haarp.

However, despite expanding their horizons, Ahab knows what it does best, and what it does best is fuckin’ DOOOOOOM. Half of the tracks on this album are more than 10 minutes long, and the other half are close. The riffs are heavy, tight, and minor key–funereal dirges worthy of the admiration of St. Iommi himself (the main riff on “Deliverance” is a fuckin’ whale of a lick, no pun intended). Ahab has not skimped on the guitar tone on this one either: the guitars sound thick and meaty, though the melodicism has picked up quite a bit since Divinity . . . , especially on “Fathoms Deep Blue”, which in itself sounds like a Mastodon track slowed to 33 rpm, and the aforementioned “Deliverance”, with its last passage akin to In Flames on sulfur hexafluoride. Mixed with the clean vocals, one could almost refer to this as “My Dying Bride” on the ocean. And yet, throughout it all, Ahab maintains a particular sound that has become their trademark: Songs do not so much flow as swirl, like the great whirlpool drawing in the Pequod. The album drifts in circles, riffs fading in and out to reappear in different parts of the song. This is a technique begun by the band on Call . . . and here perfected to avoid repetition or boredom, producing an effect that is roughly the audial equivalent of being lost on a balmy sea. The riffs and rhythms lay as heavily as the midday sun on the listener, and the long stretches of this crush rattle the mind as much as the deathly dull of a becalmed ship. Ahab can thus be both expansive and claustrophobic at the same time, a feat which produces exceptional emotional results in the listener.

Would I say that The Giant is as good as Call of the Wretched Sea? No, probably not. But there was really no way that Ahab was going to immediately top that record, considering that it came out of nowhere with one of the most original marriages of sound and concept of the past decade. It was a perfect storm, and the possibilities of repeating it successfully were slim at the very best. Thus, being unable to make another Call . . . , Ahab has been forced to expand its horizons, and The Giant is as good an album as could have been made by a band that has had to tread so lightly to retain musical integrity and originality. The Giant is thus a good step in the right direction; now, Ahab must improve upon this formula if they wish to maintain their current arc of musical progression. Considering how deftly they have handled their potentially turbulent past career, though, I for one take this album as an exciting harbinger as to what the future holds.

— Rhys Williams

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Ahab – “The Giant”

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The Giant will be released on May 25.

Napalm Records (2xLP, CD)

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