Though they appear as one and the same state of transcendental readiness in cursory study, the Buddhist concept of Nirvana and the Hindu concept of Moksha can be seen as fundamentally different, or awkwardly complimentary, as the philosophical divergence between nihilism and absurdism. Both are states of knowledge, an identical freedom granted by seemingly opposing attitudes pertaining to the ‘self’. Nirvana can be boiled down to the permanent ego-death, the cessation of all ‘ignorance’ (cravings, delusions) as a true step outside the seemingly infinite karmic wheel of birth, life and death — Nothing is eternal, everything conjoined. Moksha stems from an entirely different worldview, where self-realization (or, actualization) and a truly attained identity through three simultaneous paths offer enlightenment — The ego cannot persist when all presence is merged through all spaces, all things. Pardon the mildly elementary eastern religious essay, interpretations will vary, but it is important to understand what Prague, Czechia melodic black metal band Cult of Fire step back into the light with on their third full-length release, a double album set, ‘Moksha / Nirvana’. The two ~35 minute records are related much in the same way that their titular concepts suggest: Exacted by different means towards goals that are ultimately aiming for the same result of enlightenment. There are two understandings available to the listener and two beautiful shades of ‘epic’ melodic black metal to soak into. Whichever way you lean, into profound and ultimate ‘presence’ or the ultimate oneness with the universal ‘non-self’, you have the potential within to be enlightened by their merge.
You could see the wheel turning towards the topic of spirituality without any subtlety as early as 2013 on the trio’s second album ‘मृत्यु का तापसी अनुध्यान‘, but very little of the gritty, chaotic atmosphere or dramatic style of that demo truly carried itself across these last seven years since its release. Instead all material beyond the ‘Life, Sex & Death‘ (2016) EP would appear to reign into the atmospheric abundance of their work and focus doubly upon sweetly melodic guitar-driven pieces. Some of those ideas along the way find their home upon ‘Moksha’ but most of the material on both records speaks to a new reality, a more direct and ‘present’ being that experiments in artful, concise ways leaving the chaos n’ carnage to Infernal Vlad‘s other project Death Karma. It bears some mention that all three members of Cult of Fire have resumes detailing time within (or relation to) some of the most impactful and respected classic Czech extreme metal acts such as Maniac Butcher, Lykathea Aflame, and Dark Storm. One could argue their popularity matches some of that cult recognition today but in my opinion the masterpiece had not come from this project until ‘Moksha’ / ‘Nirvana’ arrived. Of course your sentiments will vary perhaps specifically because you’ll likely have to be a fan of the deeper cuts within melodic black metal history to really grasp the bigger picture of what homage ‘Moksha’ brings and what moderate innovation arrives with ‘Nirvana’.
‘Moksha’ is the ‘easiest’ natural path that I could walk within my final lifetime, a liberation bestowed by grasping and living three tenets (bear virtue, strive for pleasure, provide security). Or, in the case of the actual album, a running thread of past-and-present spiritual growth aims for emancipation through the ultimate state of melodic black metal. This means shots of orchestral, tribal, and sweetly Scandinavian rhythms merge to realize where Cult of Fire so clearly aimed since 2013 or so. “Zrození výjimečného” (“The Birth of the Exceptional”) breathes deeply into the listeners lungs for its full nine minutes, from clattering tribal drumming to symphonic highs and theatrical chorales you will certainly hear the lineage from the previous album elevated tenfold within this song while also sensing the greater cleanliness of the recording and precision the guitar work. These are uplifting movements, not soul-dragging cuts into oblivion and it seems that all actions aim to elevate rather than destroy — This despite the somber tone of the riffs that guide “Město mrtvých” and well, most of the album. Where my mind is truly blown doesn’t come from the spiritual aspect of this album, not from the artistic render or the sheer detail of the thing but… From how much “(ne)Čistý”, which released as a single last year (‘(Un)Clean‘, 2019), resembles a new age Inquisition meets Vedic Sacramentum (see: 2:20 minute mark), or at least some magnificent aeration of classic mid-90’s melodic black metal with drummer Tom Coroner providing some of the most finessed and mind-blowing touches within the song. Each piece on this relatively short 35 minute 5 song album has its place, its major point of impact and there isn’t time enough to be wasted. If ‘Moksha’ existed as its own thing and ‘Nirvana’ was out of the picture I’d still be equally excited for it and somehow this works both ways. Life is better with both but, each half is a gift of experience.
‘Nirvana’ is initially much more of a step into the void and for that reason I’d almost suggest listening to it first because it offers an opening for ‘Moksha’ to bloom within afterwards. Each of the five tracks on this album likewise reach the ~35 minute mark but on ‘Nirvana’ they are all named “Buddha 1”, “Buddha 2” and so on, indicating the entire piece can be seen as ever-flowing, one entire suite with five movements. The lengths and general tracklist arrangement is aligned with ‘Moksha’ in the sense that the album begins with a 9+ minute song that makes an enormous statement and the rest of the album follows its lead with four ~6 minute songs. As “Buddha 1” finally kicks into its exuberant and powerful guitar riffs alongside flutes and otherworldly keyboard/synth work it becomes clear that this is also a melodic black metal album but, an entirely different and somewhat non-traditional experience. That isn’t to say they’ve made some jagged djent-bonked avant-garde prog album but that ‘Nirvana’ guides the listener along a path that might recall the glowing silkiness of ‘Life, Sex & Death’ more than some of their other material. Buddhism as a spiritual path of study has long provided a much needed personal challenge, a struggle with the strong will of want and desire that has helped break so many paradigms and barriers in my own life so, to immerse within a set of extreme metal songs emanating some core respect and resonance with that practice is an experience of pure value if it is in fact sincere. In terms of musical style, shades of Polish and/or Finnish black metal cross my mind with austere-but-catchy melodic arrangements that are less focused on extraneous percussion than ‘Moksha’ while allowing the keyboard work to fill that role. The guitar work is clearly the focus of both records but I’d say this one leans towards the post-music/atmospheric realm (see: Uada) compared to its counterpart.
Any amount of time spent with both ‘Moksha’ and ‘Nirvana’ will reveal that they are two differently colored pieces of the same whole. Not just a dump of old ideas into two records but a fully concieved double album presenting complimentary paths to spiritual enlightenment through ornate and almost entirely memorable melodic black metal rituals. ‘Moksha’ has the immediate hits to the heartstrings through the density of the skull, and ‘Nirvana’ has a warm realigning of rhythm that builds to an infinitely repeatable trance-like state. If you are a longtime fan I could see this 70 minute experience coming across as remarkably accessible beyond expectations. This stems more from the clarity of production and perhaps from the melodic devices used, which are somewhat traditional in terms of melodic black metal method; It is emotionally driven, and I’d suppose spiritually guided black metal music in any case. I am not entirely ear-blind to the sense that the guitar compositions are not particularly innovative but much of the full listen admirably detailed beyond most peers and it is clear they’ve long scoured the brighter history of melodic black metal to arrive at this point. Vlad‘s guitar work hits the exact right resonance within the sub-genre about 90% of the time for my own tastes, aligning with my somewhat high recommendation of the full experience. ‘Moksha’ / ‘Nirvana’ combined represent one of the finest releases from the first half of 2020 and though it will appear somewhat simple in statement at first, trust that there are layers of rhythmic depth to compare and waves of resonance to enjoy with time.
High recommendation. 4.25/5.0
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