Sunday, April 6, 2014

Album Review: The Great Old Ones – Tekeli-li

Album Score: A
Few bands get it absolutely right the first time – within the realm of black metal, Emperor, Celtic Frost, Ulver, and maybe Agalloch come to mind. So when The Great Old Ones turned in a solid debut in Al Azif, prospects were good that the band’s next effort could be a breakthrough. Sure, there was the usual Weakling-worship and some songs stood out more than others, but Al Azif had some exciting qualities to it, mostly revolving around the album’s sinister vibe and saturation with all things H.P. Lovecraft. It’s only been two years since then, but The Great Old Ones is already back for round two, and this time the band has taken everything that made its debut a good album and amplified them to make Tekeli-li an all-around superb one.

The first proper song, “Antarctica,” shows both refinement of The Great Old Ones’ sound and a step forward in execution. Not only does everything sound tighter, but the climaxes now sound gigantic and atmospheric sections like abyssal plains. The band’s trio of guitarists create a constantly shifting atmosphere, with many riffs incorporating steadily rising and falling pitch bends (black notes, to coin a new term?). The resulting subtle – almost subliminal – atonality gives Tekeli-li a chilling undercurrent, one that makes The Great Old Ones’ sound immediately recognizable within its field. The album also features three spoken pieces that serve to divide Tekeli-li’s 53 minutes into more manageable sections. “Je Ne Suis Pas Fou” ("I Am Not Crazy") establishes a storytelling element to the work, which is indeed focused around the Lovecraft tale At the Mountains of Madness, while the second piece arrives halfway through “Awakening,” right before the song opens up into a freight train of riffs based on a iv6-V-i progression. The overall organization of Tekeli-li makes it a highly cohesive listen from start to finish, and where Al Azif dabbled with these concepts, Tekeli-li forges confidently ahead.

Immediately noticeable is the stellar production of Tekeli-li, courtesy of Alan Douches (Sigh, Baroness), which achieves the traditional aesthetic black metal enthusiasts crave without sacrificing the clarity of any given instrument. Léo Isnard’s drumming is presented as the centerpiece here, and his huge strides in technicality and power are one of the album’s biggest draws. The start-stop dynamics throughout “The Elder Things” could easily end up muddy if not for Isnard’s tight syncopation and variety – take song’s instrumental bridge, which transitions from a standard black metal gait into a rolling 3+5 feel, as Isnard keeps order with a quarter-beat high hat while passing rolls between the toms and kick drums to complement the dual guitars above. Sebastien Lalanne’s prominent bass work provides another layer of intrigue, as he often diverges from the song’s sonic blueprint to trace a diminished scale or take an alternate route to meet the guitars with graceful resolution.

A quick look at the track list points to “Behind the Mountains” as the most prominent work here, as its 18-minute length represents almost exactly a third of Tekeli-li. The journey begins with a duet of acoustic guitar flourishes over resonating tremolo notes, a calm before the storm that is as harrowing and ominous as it is beautiful. A minute and a half in, Benjamin Guerry bursts in with shredded vocals that vary in pitch to create, oddly, a sort of melody, or at least phrasing, deep within the wall of guitars. The song’s first barrage reiterates the descending line from “Antarctica” as if playing variations on a theme, tying together the album’s bitter ends. “Behind the Mountains” passes through several peaks, each taller than the last, before it finally arrives at its tremendous finaleOver its final six minutes the song rises from a final spoken interlude to straightforward staccato hits, stuttering tremolo passages, and a summit of intertwining gossamer guitar leads as Isnard unleashes an avalanche of double-bass to propel the song through its extended fade.

Ending an album with such a huge song can be exhausting, but that quick breather during the first half of “Awakening” proves invaluable as Tekeli-li wraps up in an ideal amount of time and effort. Al Azif was an album that contained some brilliant moments (“Rue d’Auseil” and “My Love For the Stars,” in particular), but lacked a feeling of completion and triumph. Building off that foundation, The Great Old Ones has now fulfilled its debut’s promise with an effort that is, proverbially, greater than the sum of its parts. The second half may even beproblematically good, as the incendiary rise from “Awakening” through “Behind the Mountains” makes “Antarctica” and “The Elder Ones” feel like coals that haven’t quite burst into flame. Regardless, The Great Old Ones is an outfit with a lot to proud of as it makes its move from contender to luminary within the black metal sphere. Tekeli-li probably won’t convert many people who shun atmospheric black metal as a whole, but it represents a superior entry in a genre still – fairly or not – fighting for its reputation.

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1. Je Ne Suis Pas Fou 1:19
2. Antarctica 9:40
3. The Elder Things 9:14
4. Awakening 7:54
5. The Ascend 7:28
6. Behind the Mountains 17:50

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