Abhor – Occulta Religio (2018) REVIEW

The earliest rumblings of Italian symphonic black metal band Abhor occurred in tandem with hometown black metal band Death Dies with a shared member for each group’s beginnings. Though they began with some likely influence from Samael and Mortuary Drape the cinematic keyboards of their ’98 and ’99 demos were more likely a result of the rising popularity of Ancient, Limbonic Art and perhaps Bal-Sagoth. It was the addition of now-deceased organist/keyboardist Errans Inferorum in 2000 that would help shape the band’s distinction over the next fourteen years and five full-lengths. ‘I​.​gne N​.​atura R​.​enovatur I​.​ntegra’ in 2001 built upon the gothic cinema of Abhor‘s demo releases and with the freed-reigns of cheese (see: Esoteric Horror Black Metal) in the era thusly did the emotive melodrama flow from all corners of symphonic black metal. The mid-pace and influence of the classic Norwegian second wave carry through to the Abhor of today, but with entirely different use of ‘symphonic’ elements. A haunting Baroque-esque organ fills the echoing halls of ‘Occulta Religio’ rather than the fluttering fantasy keyboard soundscapes of their early days.

Whereas ‘Vocat Spiritum Morti’ was lost in a sea of symphonic fantasy in 2004 the next year Abhor returned with ‘Vehementia’ and with more aggressive intentions than previous. Each release was average or merely standard for underground symphonic black metal but seemed like a last gasp in a slow death of any hope of mainstream inclusion. The return of the band in 2007 was a raw pure black metal baptism that further distanced the band from their keyboard heavy earlier works with ‘In Nostrum Maleficium’. It is a rare and honest example of spiritual defiance and the place where I jump into the band’s discography wholeheartedly. As much as I fawn over symphonic black metal’s silly boon in the late 90’s, few great artists survived it thoughtfully. The twisted guitar riffs, varied pace, and sinister echoing vocals from Ulfhedhnir made for an unassuming but memorable black metal experience.

After two albums away Errans Inferorum returned on 2011’s ‘Ab Luna Lucenti, Ab Noctua Protecti’ and so came a brief return to the Ancient-like ethereal quality of their earlier work. By the year 2011 this sort of implementation was either a bit of a throwback or just in poor taste (see: Fear of Eternity) and though it was better than ever on the part of Abhor, I really preferred the guitar work and sound when they’d shed most of their ‘ambient’ elements. With the sudden passing of Errans Inferorum amidst the recording of ‘Ritualia Stramonium’ in 2014 so resulted a notable change in style for the band. Not only was ‘Ritualia Stramonium’ largely gilded with the harrowing ring of Baroque church organ performance but it incited some deeper, darkness within the other instrumentation. Some greater looming threat of ancient evil awoke in Abhor‘s sound on that album that carries with greater heaviness into ‘Occulta Religio’.

If you’re familiar with what the ‘church’ organ accompaniment brings to bands like Abysmal Grief that same affect looms amidst the doom-like crawl and blackened blasts of ‘Occulta Religio’. With some groups this instrumentation goes entirely ‘circus’ as they dabble in cheerful key but no worries as the spirit of their earliest influences carries through all of their material. If you have a clear memory of Mortuary Drape‘s slower moments on ‘All The Witches Dance’ and Samael‘s ‘Worship Him’, some spirit of those releases lives within Abhor along with the theatrics of Root‘s ‘The Temple in the Underworld’. On these most recent two releases they’ve found the use of the organ, and not multi-layered keyboards, serving as a true fourth instrument is an incredible signature sound for the band that escapes the odd cheese associated with ye olde cringe of symphonic metal from two decades ago.

Because it is an important part of what makes this album special within Abhor’s continually developing discography, some extra credit is due to the performance of organist Leonardo Lonnerbach. ‘Occulta Religio’ is a different sort of symphonic black metal where the Italian traditions of occult old school black metal avoid the typified power metal pompousness common to the flashier side of Italian extreme metal. Not only is the integration of the organ menacing and appropriately ‘dark’ across the album’s length but it is done with some admirable measure of restraint. Some few songs are driven by the organist’s progressions and others allow it to crop up to accompany a memorable doom riff or movement. “Demons Forged From Smoke” is a great example of simply highlighting the overarching black metal performance with the organ to strong effect.

The last thing I’d like to do is over-emphasize the organ as if the doomed and riff-crammed guitar work and varied vocal performances don’t stand out just as much. Abhor works as a strong unit on ‘Occulta Religio’ and invoke their damned rituals without relying on any gimmick and this is just one highlight from their relatively strong run of full-lengths since 2001. I am personally glad to get some small hints of the stripped-down ‘In Nostrum Maleficium’ amidst the return of the now more streamlined organ work from ‘Ritualia Stramonium’ and some older influences revived. I’d recommend this to symphonic black metal fans with some caveat that it isn’t theatrical in the same Norse way much of their previous discography way. It might be better served to fans of old Greek black metal, early Samael, as well as lovers of the earliest underground Italian black metal scenes.

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Artist Abhor
Type Album
Released April 18, 2018
BUY/LISTEN on Iron Bonehead Productions’ Bandcamp! Follow Abhor on Facebook
Genres

With the sign of cross moons. 4.0/5.0

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