RITUALS OF THE DEAD HAND – With Hoof & Horn (2021)REVIEW

Thievery, destruction, mayhem and extortion under the blessing of Satan might make for curious, almost campy folklore today but the reality of De Bokkenrijders, an unincorporated gang of violent miscreants set upon what was 18th century southern Netherlands and today a certain portion of the Limburg province of Belgium, lead to a serious sort of “witch hunt” with a disparity of perhaps less than ten justifiable criminal convictions and nearly a hundred innocent executed for their supposed pacts with the dark prince. Dressed as devils in the night and probably towing along a ram or goat as company, these moonlit thugs would ransack farmlands in small groups to such a degree that they’d become infamous on a strangely mythic level, earning a reputation as goat-riding skeleton men with the ability to fly. Whether this was spread in such a way to cause Satanic panic enough that the wealthy could be extorted rather than surprised with a late night break-in is questionable yet, these descriptions were handed down with a sort of whimsical horror over the years, depicted in plays (even including the real suicide of an imprisoned accused) and vaguely referenced in literature from these areas. This reputation could not have been earned without cruelty and the end result of this crime spree was the unjust deaths of anyone who’d ever crossed the church or appeared anything less than pious. Inspired by both the reality and the fiction of this historic, fabled anomaly and its broadest applications today Limburg, Belgium based duo (now trio) Rituals of the Dead Hand wield the essence of these “buckriders” in conjuration of their second mayhemic black/doom metal work ‘With Hoof & Horn‘, four immersive yet contemptuous and mournfully dirging odes to blasphemous uprising.

Rituals of the Dead Hand formed in 2018 between Lykaios, a veteran of the Belgium scene who is best known for his work in prog-black band Gorath and popular post-metal act Hemelbestormer, and Isangrim a well known drummer from the doom metal scene via Death Penalty, Serpentcult, and Thee Plague of Gentlemen. This is the exact right pairing for a project that combines the ominous pace of both extreme and classic doom metal with a sort of monastic, dirging black metal spiritus. The heart of what they do could be vaguely likened to Samael‘s ‘Blood Ritual’ record (or, certain 90’s Barathrum records), blackened dirges that creep towards death/doom with unexpected textural guitar fronts and high atmospheric values. Today we have a broader palette of ‘old school’ motioned black/doom to work with so, you’ll get hints of Faustcoven, the second Dolorian album (see: “Vuurstaeck”) and the chugging, odd-metered drone of bands like Heavydeath and Head of the Demon (see: opener “Sulphur”). Though the promise of a black/doom metal band is always met with some enthusiasm on my part this one stands out up front for its willingness to creep into death/doom-adjacent expressions and you’ll no doubt commonly see folks struggling to liken their sound to later Necros Christos, I would rather suggest Runemagick personally. Though we could view ‘With Hoof & Horn’ as a more refined iteration of the less subtle and hammer-heaviness of their first album (‘Blood Oath‘, 2018) the slight changes they’ve made to suit their continued narrative exploration make all the difference from my point view.

Having more or less covered this “satanic gang of thieves” subject matter on their debut album the thought applied to this second album seems to have been a need to more richly, completely convey this theme via the use of not only (lightly used) atmospheric keyboard accoutrement and brief orchestral arrangements but also some use of sound effects to suggest this realm of Satanic crime and god-fearing punishment. Black metal fans who’re not attuned to the old ways of groups such as Christ Agony and the aforementioned groups might not get the same thrill out of songs like “Inception” but this piece, which leads with its sort of early second wave arpeggiation, immediately hits the right inverted church bell that triggers the part of my brain still in love with slow-to-mid paced black metal arcana. This piece also features a most prominent use of synth/keyboard melodic accoutrement to ensure a sort of six note melody will permanently burn into mind, a classic touch that becomes louder as a characteristic of the full listen over time. These darker, hypnotic touches illustrate the dark consequences of horror and blasphemies associated with de Bokkenrijders with lyrics that seem to point to their tortured confessions, unjust trials and executions meant to be as cruel as their crimes.

At the very least it could be said that Rituals of the Dead Hand paint a dark and sullen picture of humanity above all else, from my point of view this is not as empathetic as a tragedian examination might’ve been, but instead an appropriately cruel mockery of superstition, religious power and the easy exploitation of faithful idiots… all in celebration of mayhem. In this sense it is the right statement for a black metal record and the doom-angled point of view is equally sated. Sound design, performances, and artwork are all relatively strong in building upon the foundation of ‘Blood Oath’ and exceeding an already high bar. That said, I think this project still needs something more signature beyond theme and exacting sub-genre fusion; They are most of the way there in terms of guitar work and expanding the variety of vocal expression (see: “The Defiling Days”) seems to be the right path for now. A fine record that held up for many, many listens and may be just distinct enough to remember at the end of the year. A moderately high recommendation.

Moderately high recommendation. (75/100)

Rating: 7.5 out of 10.
Info:
ARTIST:RITUALS OF THE DEAD HAND
TITLE:With Hoof & Horn
TYPE:LP
LABEL(S):Dunkelheit Produktionen
RELEASE DATE:May 1st, 2021
BUY & LISTEN:Bandcamp [All Formats]
GENRE(S):Black/Doom Metal,
Black/Death Doom Metal

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