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Mournful Congregation – The Book of Kings

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There’s a great dilemma I’ve noticed regarding my own relationship with writing about music—maybe it’s something experienced by every music writer; maybe other music writers have found better ways of dealing with it than I—but it goes something like this: Whenever I hear a new album I love, as soon as I recognize that I am falling in love, I commit to writing about the music; however, as soon as I start writing, and even more so when I am done, I feel I have cheapened my love for the music, I have perhaps irreparably damaged what was once pure and meaningful and consuming.

I was maybe three-fifths of the way through my first listen of Mournful Congregation’s The Book of Kings when I knew for sure I was in love. It didn’t hit me over the head at any particular instant; the album is worthy of devotion and praise from its opening notes, and I was a fan of Mournful Congregation prior to The Book of Kings anyway, but it still took me almost 45 minutes to completely recognize and surrender to the inevitable. As of now, with dozens of hours already dedicated to the album, I will be surprised if it does not end the year at the very top of my list.

Some biographical info before I go on: Mournful Congregation are from South Australia; they have released three full-length LPs prior to The Book of Kings; many of their songs crack double-digit minutes in length. They are unquestionably among the world’s finest purveyors of funeral doom—music that is trudgingly slow, crushingly heavy, and overwhelmingly sad. Each of their LPs offers moments of profound and breathtaking power. The Book of Kings improves on the band’s previous high watermarks, 2005’s The Monad of Creation and 2009’s The June Frost. Structurally, it is a return to their much earlier work. Where The June Frost found the band crafting more concise songs, relatively speaking (exactly half of its eight tracks came in under 5 minutes each), The Book of Kings retreats to the unyielding, monolithic compositions of Monad and 1998’s Tears From a Grieving Heart: It features four magnificent and massive songs, ranging from 12:02 to 33:10. And over the course of its nearly one-and-a-quarter-hour running time, it has the ability to transform inner worlds from something mundane to something altogether magical.

As a rule, funeral doom is despairing, agonized, often suicidal music: Prior to The Book of Kings, the genre’s finest offering of 2011 was an album called Despond, by a band called Loss, which features a 10-minute cut called “Open Veins to a Curtain Closed”—not exactly lighthearted fare. And though The Book of Kings is by no means trying to rewrite the rules of the genre in that regard (it opens with a 19-minute track called “The Catechism of Depression”), this is not, to me, an album that feels glum or joyless or even overly solemn. It is a genuinely, sincerely awesome album—awesome, as in it inspires and demands awe. It is striking, clear, overpowering music. It is also wonderfully autumnal music. (In fact, when Invisible Oranges contributor Tom Brandow and I were first discussing what would eventually become his excellent piece on fall metal albums, The Book of Kings was one of the records I mentioned as being especially apt for the season.)

Furthermore, Mournful Congregation don’t rely on the traditional tools of metal to achieve aural or emotional gravity. The Book of Kings moves slowly, but not at an unnaturally glacial pace—it is refined and thoughtful; it doesn’t test my patience, it merely unfolds at a confident gait. It doesn’t feature furious screaming or harsh grunts; the vocals are often delivered in the form of long whispers which feel like tendrils of smoke or silk. It is not a bulldozer of music; it is at times delicate and gentle. “The Waterless Streams”, for one, deals in sonics at both ends of the spectrum; it revels in epic, spiraling, bottom-heavy riffs that would shake foundations alongside the likes of Jesu or Isis, but also features a gorgeous guitar lead reminiscent of Roger Waters’ loveliest work. “The Bitter Veils of Solemnity” is even less concerned with distortion or volume—built around a quiet, deliberate acoustic guitar, it grows into a luxuriant and meditative soundscape, with elements of shoegaze and Spanish classical; it has the gentle precision of Mark Kozelek’s most intricate moments with Sun Kil Moon. The album’s 33-minute title track (one of the few songs I can think of that truly fills such space and justifies its size) offers more textures still; I hear everything from Khanate to Pat Metheny to the 10 a.m. mass at St. Patrick’s Cathedral in there.

None of this is to say The Book of Kings is not heavy. It is in fact very heavy. But it arrives at that state using sounds and tones not often associated with heavy music.

But it is in writing about the sounds and tones, I think, that I get lost, that my love is somehow twisted and distorted and confused. I don’t listen to music to appreciate musicality or to point out references; I listen to music because of the way it makes me feel—and I almost never write about the way it makes me feel. So I will try to do that here:

I lived for a few years in the beachfront town of Long Beach, New York, in an apartment overlooking the Atlantic Ocean. I found the winters in Long Beach to be unusually harsh and beautiful, and sometimes, in the pre-dawn mornings, I would go for long walks along the shore, in the sand, in the darkness, under a dome of stars and a fleet of aircraft. I would bundle up against the whistling sub-zero wind and listen to Sigur Ros or Bark Psychosis—weird, otherworldly music—and feel like I was walking on the surface of the moon. When I had walked a mile or so, when I felt like civilization had fully disappeared in a swirl of sand behind me, I would walk out, on a jetty made of boulders, into the ocean. And I would stand there—waves lapping at my feet, small puddles turning to ice as they settled into grooves in the rock, my eyes tearing up in the salt air—and watch the sun rise. I would watch it slowly go from a pale shade of purple on the horizon to a shimmering sliver of golden fire to a giant ball of daylight. It was so slow, of course, that it was hard to witness motion, but there in the sky, the sun was moving. Or, more accurately, the world beneath me was moving; I was standing still, the sun was standing still.

And then, it was morning. It was a new day.

That’s what The Book of Kings makes me feel. That’s why I love it. Even though I can’t describe my love, that’s why I want to, why I need to, why I’m writing these words and listening to this glorious, remarkable music.

— Mike Nelson

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HEAR THE BOOK OF KINGS
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Mournful Congregation – “The Book of Kings”

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http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=nZ3n68Ucwog

Mournful Congregation – “The Waterless Streams”

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BUY THE BOOK OF KINGS

The Cave (CD) (Australia)
Mournful Congregation (Digital download)
20 Buck Spin (CD, Digital download)

. . .

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