Though our corporeal forms, these mutant anatomies, represent an untrustworthy stability this unsure state is a pure delusion of the ‘heart’. An eternally static and predictable mechanism denied for generations by the delusional minds of modern man creeps our existence into feeble unfeeling wreckage. So dies any creative notions when a free man is caged of his nature. The human animal is a being shaped and shackled ruthlessly by manipulative aggregate herders, given blinders as workhorse and damned to ignore the truly stunning event of inspiration and grandstanding, relentlessly detailed art. Men deny the rise they get out of life, they deny their tempers and privatize their unreasonable lust, and in doing so end up killing passion and diluting whatever inoculated self they’d manage after the mind were scrubbed clean. To pull the mesh from view and celebrate the wilderness of man cannot be without induction into the very mortality of the self; The body cannot escape hapless frailty until death has frightened it into action beyond numbness into trauma and grief. You must feel deaths embrace and shake free the mask of life eternal obscuring the dead world built from rotten Earth around you. With old bones of formerly sincere societies crumbling around us, few men feign turn to the lessons of auld culture with hope for merit and meaning; Today we see a multitude of young men halfway there, giving the reach-around to what trend that inspires them into action but dully voiding any search for history, meaning or personal extension. Who would put every piece of themselves, or their collective, into art when there is no depth to sift through? Dublin, Ireland is home to an alternate form of feral man the sort of muso that would internalize the prose of their history and erupt with feeling and inspiration as if it were ancestral. Among the most promising shines the many-fanged Vircolac of today. Here in 2019 we receive their first great work of distinction, a six year cadence that built in waves towards ‘Masque’ a new sound created in the old way, with high concept and every sinew engaged in serious intent.
They formed in the shadows of 2013 and on the heels of the now unfulfilled enlightenment ‘The Formulas of Death’ Tribulation had promised that same year. Today Vircolac create their own magnificent undoing of modern ‘old school’ death metal progressive tropes but their witching blackened death arc shifted in various states of indecision for several subtler demo releases prior. ‘Codex Perfida’ (2014) brought death/doom atmospherics and bounding blackened pace. ‘Feraliminal’ (2016) saw a jolt of complex rhythmic lunges amidst apprehensive tonality and with this progression came polish on the well-received ‘The Cursed Travails of the Demeter’ (2016) EP. Erase all of this from your mind, immediately. What was a blood-dripping gothic tale made romance with reverb and slithering pace is now ‘Masque’. Not an arm or a leg, a piece or a foundation, not a hazy form in nostalgic semblance but a crystallized vision of death music unblurred but still deconstructed of today’s feigned ‘old school’ tunnel vision.
Much of Vircolac‘s build-up unto ‘Masque’ has attempted an authenticity in terms of fidelity whether that meant live in studio recordings, limited vocal takes, or organic recording methods the goal has built towards a brazen confidence rather than a haze-ridden mountain of artificial reverb that many groups use to hide their loose ends and create a feeling of rawness where none exists. On ‘Masque’ they’ve suggested the bold, raunchy punch of ‘South of Heaven’ to their go-to engineer Ola Ersfjord who has built an intense resume between releases from Primordial, ZOM, Dread Sovereign, and Night. In avoidance of any murky laze that could typify the material this ‘live in studio’ production and final master sings with a rotten throat, clear-and-present giving a brilliant voice to ‘Masque’ that brings to mind the old (debuts from Cadaver and Atrocity) and the new (Necrovation, Venenum) alike though, the influence appears to come most directly from the classics as suggested. Black metallic phrasal statements, the call-and-response of technical death/thrash, and the dynamic slapping melodrama that came into greater popularity with records like ‘Sweven’ all endanger the experience with a threatening pulse; What could express as a mush of peak Tribulation-esque prog-death is relieved by the end of the opener “Titan”, a spectacle worthy beyond its influences and semblances that begins to define not only ‘Masque’ as an experience but Vircolac beyond.
A litany of thoughtful details define every moment of music, imagery, theme, and lyric within ‘Masque’. This builds the case for a great work immediately and to the point that I quickly became overwhelmed considering the bigger focus of the undertaking when faced with the handful of elucidations from the Bardo Methodology interview with drummer NH (Colin Purcell) who would pivot into Vircolac fresh out of his five year stint in Cruachan. The intention, that I can manage, is (as stated) to unveil the listener and not just shove their blind faces in the feces of mortality but to inspire the curious listener to know where the self stands in death, equal when united as food for microbe into shit, into mud. Homage to the dead, an homage to death, but not a ‘retro’ homage to death metal Vircolac find meaning not in tradition but in defiance as a tradition among the culture they’ve risen from. That isn’t to say you’ll find any sort of traditional Irish music in their jib but rather themes largely stemming from the dark art and history of their nation be it Bram Stoker (on their first EP) or the wars of independence, legend of Cú Chulainn, and all of this arriving upon a message of overcoming obstacle be it adversity, injustice or death itself.
For all of the musical references sown thus far you might assume this’d be a riff-light experience that relies on convoluted texture and atmospherics to sustain any sort of musical personality but I’d say you’re only half correct. Some of that first impression will actually stem from the bare sound and the complex pacing throughout which can initially feel like a barrage of nuance. There are larger musical statements that define the experience of ‘Masque’ as an arc rather than a performative shuffle between technique and psychedelia that many would expect. Consider it a more focused kin to ‘Trance of Death’ or ‘The Formulas of Death’ that arrives upon the rage of ‘Dark is the Season’ era Benediction and the technician’s mentality of Atrocity‘s ‘Hallucinations’ all funneled through the dynamic performative range of a mid-paced blackened death metal band. Tribulation was (previously) as thoughtful, ZOM is as rapacious and ‘classic’ minded, and Venenum hold similar stylistic references but no contemporaries seem to recognize the impact of their strengths the same way that Vircolac‘s meticulous vision on ‘Masque’ does. So, uh how are the riffs?
Ultimately it is the fantastic guitar arrangements and their woven, avant-ecstatic rhythms that direct and define the listening experience of ‘Masque’. Even if you overlooked the details that add crooked shadow-play and bring repeatability to the experience the in-motion roll of Vircolac has never been so bold, so directly seething in that thunder. There is such pleasure in the ‘roll-and-boil’ pacing of this record that it does eventually resolve as a modern death metal experience that provides enough of a challenge, a rhythmic river to paddle through, that the mind wanders within it rather than in spite of it. More directly spoken: The riffs come as runs and bursts, not forceful or anxietous salad. A few weeks prior to drafting my thoughts I was confronted with the unusual urge to listen to ‘Masque’ as I woke up, not for a catchy moment but because I wanted that immersion. “So I Hang From a Wretched Tree” is where I wanted to sit and meditate within the tidal pulses of its arrangements most but, the title track that follows hooked me deeply with an Ensnared/Morbus Chron-esque feeling that built towards a raw-coughed “Where the Slime Live” moment as it concludes. There I was sold into eternity and with deeper moment-to-moment analysis every detail would impress. As such this debut from Vircolac deserves a highest recommendation for stylistic vision, honest sound, and thematic impressum. For preview I think “So I Hang From a Wretched Tree” works as a plunge into the deep end but, “Tether and Wane” is perhaps the ultimate ‘finesse’ moment to introduce the new sound of Vircolac, otherwise jilted pre-2015 Tribulation fans will easily connect with “Titan”.
Our grand leveller. 5.0/5.0
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