Altar of Oblivion – The Seven Spirits (2019) REVIEW

As an early work of fantasy with incredible world-building and a very wise conglomeration of parables from various nearby cultures the New Testament may be a difficult read but, its heavily manipulated translations and wildly devotional praise hold such tradition as a tool of human slavery it becomes difficult to not admire the power of its destructive fixation. There is no greater spellbook for both good and  evil among men. Revelation is perhaps the most intensely revised chapter with its authoritative final push and jumble of instructive and sometimes esoteric references, it is also the ‘youngest’ in the collection that appears as cursory summary much of the time. It’d seem that the many references to the seven gifts of the holy spirit, or the seven spirits of God in Revelation were pulled from various re-translations of the eight hundred year old (at the time) book of Isaiah which had been re-written and partially finished by four different authors in total. Why so much revision? Isaiah was a key work for the religion as it dictated most clearly the relationship between the imagined God and the follower. This would be tweaked heavily for the sake of changing times and the need for absolute devotion as off-shot cult became state-defiant religion. The seven gifts of the Holy Spirit are essentially lies every Christian promises to believe about themselves that they’d embody these gifts with steadfast purpose but, as we see in modern times, it is ‘every man for himself’ and religion is merely a tribe of defense and destruction today. The gifts?

The seven spirits vary slightly depending on the amount of desired devotion; The Spirit of the Lord itself may or may not be included in any recital but most modern versions include the spirits of wisdom, understanding, counsel, might (later: fortitude), knowledge, piety (alternately: reverence) and perhaps the most confusing inclusion, the spirit of the Fear of the Lord. This was inserted in times of severity, of rampant and cruel human slavery where a convert could be ‘freed’ from his literal captors and oppression by accepting the watchful master in the sky instead. Today modern Christianity backpedals in describing the ‘fear of the lord’ as a ‘gift’, explaining it away in awkward context across the board but they miss a chance for the bigger picture. To be free from all gods and masters is the only appropriate ideal for men who could ever wish to master those other six ‘gifts’. If there is any lesson to be learned, and held onto, from the oft-manipulated New Testament it is that -most- of those seven ‘gifts’ are vital goals for good human beings that most fall very, very short of. Hence the apocalypse around us, hence the doom you feel every day, hence the burning world on our shoulders, hence the gun violence we hide in denial of, and hence the appreciable upsurge of glorious doom metal the world over now including ‘The Seven Spirits’, the third full-length from venerable Danish epic doom metal band Altar of Oblivion.

If there is any pious fervor in the three album, fourteen year ventures of this dramatic and righteously performed epic heavy metal project it comes from a clear love of the expressive traditions of rock and heavy metal during the 60’s, 70’s and 80’s and this’d be palpable from their first full-length ‘Sinews of Anguish’ (2009). That said, Altars of Oblivion were clearly inspired by the reign of Reverend Bizarre and the resurgence of traditional heavy metal and doom metal that’d kick up major dust throughout the 2000’s as they arrived. Formed between Martin Mendelssohn (Lords of Triumph, The Vein) and Allan Larsen (ex-Cerekloth, ex-Church Bizarre) in 2005 it’d be a long road in getting that first fairly standard, somewhat bland doom metal album out the door. Though its sound was unique the vocals were quite bad, operatic and without any meaningful control (yes, even for doom metal standards). The concept within was perhaps more interesting than the merely ‘good’ music and with some clear influence from post-‘The Angel and the Dark River’ era My Dying Bride and with a halfway there cadence a la Reverend Bizarre that’d explore a World War II-centric theme that’d been concieved in 2006 by Mendelssohn. It was most definitely one of those releases many doom obsessed folks loved for its epic doom metal style but even today it feels formative and not exactly where the band might’ve wanted to be. The ‘Salvation’ (2012) EP was really where vocalist Mik Mentor would begin to really grasp the melodic verve of epic doom metal and carry a tune with less awkward harmonization. I’d warmed up to the band at this point and the emergence of their second full-length, ‘Grand Gesture of Defiance’ (2012), would cement my interest as the first undeniably good release from Altar of Oblivion and perhaps one of the better doom metal releases of 2012.

It was clear that a shift towards catchy 80’s heavy metal style with some late 70’s hard rock melodic ideas would benefit Altar of Oblivion and allow them to stray from the epic doom metal pack. That second album was evocative of doom metal but structurally focused on more of mid-paced heavy metal style with a quite dramatic vocal performance and it’d seem like that was the ‘signature’ sensibility that the project had landed upon within that core line-up. The ‘Barren Grounds’ (2016) EP would follow a long break but reinforce earlier stylistic choices by almost experimentally heading deeper towards a Dio-era Sabbath-esque style that pointed towards a classic mid-80’s sort of doom metal and proto-doom at once. It wasn’t bad but it wasn’t great and to have taken four years to hit that point was less than impressive at the time. Whatever had constipated the bands output prior to 2017, be it internal issues or various side-projects, appears to have been a worthwhile period of growth for the folks involved as this third full-length appears with a bold and instant hit of metal that engages in boldly dramatic form for the entirety of its 40+ minute length. The project appears to be moving on, pushing through whatever obstacles persisted and have already begun to mention their next album as heavily ‘in the works’.

If the six year space between full-lengths could be explained by simply ‘only committing to the best and most memorable of our ideas’ as they came, then I’d find that entirely believable in listening to ‘The Seven Spirits’. From the first to the twentieth full-listen the album rolls through its seven songs effortlessly as any doom metal classic would. Mentor‘s vocals drive the experience more than expected with a death rock-meets-Messiah Marcolin register that is at once slightly ‘gothic’ and classic heavy metal at once. The first three tracks make such a brutally strong first impression with impactful lyrical imagery, deft turns of phrase and a driven pace; No doubt those three songs alone will sell the album to many. The soaring leads and thrashing changes of “Created in the Fires of Holiness”, the unforgettably ultra-goth intro to the anthemic “No One Left”, and the Wheel-esque melodramatic peak of “Solemn Messiah” almost set the bar too high for Side B which ends with two (comparatively) average tracks that sound a bit like leftovers from the ‘Grand Gesture of Defiance’ sessions. This doesn’t create an imbalance so much as a mood that descends from energy towards rest that’ll feel counterintuitive unless you just let the record spin 2-3 times in a row, as I often would. Whats that? I’ve got the tracklist wrong? I know. A common issue with receiving digital content for review is that the tracklist is often incorrect and in this case I’d fallen in love with an album while listening to it in the wrong order. Not a big deal in the long run. Thanks to this small error, I took an extra two weeks beyond the release date of the album to consider the final tracklist, and well… It is more balanced. So, the late appearance of “Solemn Messiah” helps the full listen sustain itself while it being sandwiched between the two least interesting only adds to its presence on the album as a standout. There is a reason to spin Side B after all.

Back in 2012 I’d essentially left ‘Grand Gesture of Defiance’ off of my ‘best of the year’ list because the impression I’d gotten from the music and lyrical subjects was that it was conveying a Christian message. I don’t typically write off religious music anymore unless it is particularly zealous or dire. In fact I was completely wrong, something I’d not understood until coming across a few pre-interviews for this full-length in 2017. There is a sort of see-saw of ironic piety and examination of zealotry as the cause or symptom of a dying world within the overall scope of ‘The Seven Spirits’. Seeing religion as a tool to manipulate and force the hand of folks against the proposed purpose of that religion is a running theme in Altar of Oblivion‘s music though most all of it could be interpreted a number of ways. I appreciate the craft of the lyrics and especially Mentor‘s performative delivery of them a bit more after having taken a closer look at their theme and context. It is always more satisfying to be proven wrong by one’s own research rather than the wagging finger of a dolt over the internet.

It’d seem clear that I’ve been entertained and immensely enjoyed my time with ‘The Seven Spirits’ as a whole. The month I’d spent listening to the wrong track order and the weeks adapting to the real thing afterwards afforded me a little more consideration that every epic heavy metal album typically needs and it’ll stick out in my mind thanks to that additional analysis. I would say that despite the analytical blather and dissection of themes apparent the appeal of Altar of Oblivion and its impact upon me came from the feeling of the music, that shaking-but-subtly gothic doom metal vocal tone and the oft-thrashing mid-to-late 80’s epic doom metal guitar sound was worth the time for its feeling rather than any trivia I might conjure over time. At the heart of the issue is the projects continued strength in creating provocative modern epic doom metal with a mind for the classics and in this sense we’re given a solid round of memorable and moving heavy/doom metal songs with a vibe that’ll stick with me throughout the year. Highly recommended. For preview I’d suggest “Created in the Fires of Holiness” as one of the more apt fist-in-the-air moments of 2019 but make sure you hear “No One Left” and especially “Solemn Messiah” before you move on.

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Artist Altar of Oblivion
Type Album
Released April 26th, 2019
BUY & LISTEN on Shadow Kingdom Records’ Bandcamp! Follow Altar of Oblivion on Facebook
Genre Epic Heavy/Doom Metal

Between mortal flesh and divine spirit. 4.25/5.0

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