HOUR OF 13 – Black Magick Rites (2021)REVIEW

A careful first step away from a well-defined yet entirely tumultuous ‘self’ may not be all that it appears to be or, anything of the sort. Personal mythos and the mystique of the artisan often defies any innate logic of progression in the same way a ‘retro’-nostalgic act might appear outside of time, or out of touch, when viewed through the glazed eyes and inattentive ears of pop culture addicted swine. What incontestably dawns upon the left-hand guided, those who are most often found cultivating the cryptic and arcane atmosphere of death and/or fear, is the inevitable dread that comes with the thoughtless cyclic reversion of public taste as it circles back around. Will it be reinvention or death? Too often we are presented faux regression back to popular impetus by way of cheapening legacy acts and this may be all the defiance that is needed to reignite beyond cold cynicism, or, at least suss out whether the cycle is renewed or perpetually stillborn. Was it purgatorial indecision, slow-stewed envision, or a difficult swallow of disgust for the thousands of knee-locking steps one must take rising to the mezzanine of our blandest nowadays that lead North Carolina-borne and Bay Area situated musician Chad Davis to ultimately revive his traditional doom metal project Hour of 13 in 2016 with seeming nostalgia for its complex point of origin? The first musical notions which called for this name years ago now complete the circle for the artist on ‘Black Magick Rites‘, the fourth full-length from the now entirely solo-enacted yet undaunted entity. Here the old bones are thrown into tar and molded no less in the form of traditional occult doom metal music, easing into the disillusionment of deathrock via Davis‘ vocals without losing the surreal, orgiastic Satanic horror the entity is known for.

The buffer for change is appropriately thick and perhaps a bit “safe” by direct comparison with the handful of Samhain-wise goth doom EP releases (as Hour of Thirteen) in the interim beyond Hour of 13‘s Earache-chewed and spat ‘333‘ (2012), a record I consider a modern classic of doom metal and perhaps as traditionally “heavy metal” as the band would/will ever aspire. It is worth noting up front that this album is nothing short of the most classic Hour of 13 sound found on their first two albums but with about half of the emphasis on lead-guitar driven heroism; Instead the focus is upon what I would consider the most characteristic aspect of the entity — A stone-faced 70’s occult-obssessed doom rock entrancement presented as thread running through all four albums. I wouldn’t consider this a half-step into the future but I wouldn’t blame the artist for any sort of trepidation felt. For every step that Davis has taken to advance his vision for this band the next two have collapsed beneath him, leading to a condemned state once he’d finally reached the top of the stairs beyond ‘333’. So, which is more important as we are on the precipice of ‘Black Magick Rites’? The history of Davis‘ vision from 2003 through 2012, or the path to this point from 2013 ’til today? Well, a little of each. The choice for his taking over the vocals was probably long overdue but rightfully developed over time since Phil Swanson‘s (Briton Rites, Vestal Claret, Solemn Lament, et al.) voice is long past being considered the signature of any one band; Though their fusion was impressive the band had succeeded in landing on a (formerly glorious, infamously based) “major” label in spite of it rather than because of it. I cannot guarantee that anyone who’d missed on all of the action (er, independent releases) since 2016 will quickly acclimate to Davis‘ Liebling-esque cold shuddering and harmonized gloom-tone when expecting the earthier early 80’s Terry Jones-like cadence of Swanson from Hour of 13 but the multi-talented musician has ensured that his songwriting is so on point here that no one in their right mind could see ‘Black Magick Rites’ as anything but a genuine addition to their discography, and I say this despite the emphasis on deathrock influences provided.

Were you shaking in your boots when they landed? When I Hate put The Ritualist‘s sole demo ‘Hell’s Doom Eternal‘ in 2017 a bit after Davis had announced the eventual return of Hour of 13 the wires in my brain had crossed and fried as I was presented with a sort of necro-doomed and all too similar project that could’ve viably been the next step for Hour of 13 in motion. From that point we began to see the fruit of the artist’s labors arrive in waves of extreme metal (Obscurae, Olde, Anu, Draath, Stench of Evil) and collaborations within a different sort of doom metal framework (The Sabbathian, The Crooked Whispers) some of which are still far more underrated than they deserve (see: ‘Latum Alterum’) and others which I’ll overlook here simply because they’re irrelevant to heavy metal. When the Hour of Thirteen branded releases, specifically the ‘Feast of Flames‘ single and the ‘A Knell Within the Crypt‘ (2019) EP, landed they’d indicated that both Davis‘ vocals and the instrumentals themselves would be heavily influenced by what most would read as horror/gothic rock, or, a very specific take on deathrock, going forward. The distinction counts as just one interesting stage of development in the larger process of realizing the path towards ‘Black Magick Rites’ but those pieces don’t translate directly to the album itself, which tempers most shades of Samhain and Christian Death to a vocal performance and patternation most will read as appropriately in the realm of late 70’s gloom rock and heavy metal. Maybe there is a full step into that realm available to Hour of 13 down the road but the table was flipped when ‘Black Magick Rites’ released in observance of Samhain last year 2020 alongside the ‘Deathly Nights‘ EP, a raw set of songs worked out in roughly a week leading up to the event. The fervor of these events hit me, of course, as a long time fan and I’d quickly bought the album that day. So, before we dig any further keep in mind I’ve been listening to ‘Black Magick Rites’ in full for nearly ten months and enjoying it that entire time.

Classic doom metal, proto-doom, 70’s doom rock, occult rock/heavy metal, and a wicked dose of the ’79 ruggedness that characterizes apex NWOBHM aged gloom all remain the major result of Hour of 13‘s greater reap. That is to say that if you’d been on board since ‘Hour of 13‘ (2007) or, like me, hitched a ride on their train for the love of the Eyes Like Snow label’s output in the late 2000’s with the breakthrough ‘The Ritualist‘ (2010) you won’t feel even the slightest bit alienated by ‘Black Magick Rites’, if anything I’d say Davis has pulled back towards those heavy rock fueled days before ‘333’ breathed deeper of the arena-sized idea and lost a bit of the pub’s leather booth stink as they honed in on what I’d consider Hour of 13‘s most complex, pined over songwriting. Much as I’d been wanting the ‘666’ up-tick from 2012’s ‘333’ for several years the important thing is that we’ve gotten a bit of canon and a push for something new after the eight year walk between. The title track, “Black Magic Rites”, is the best example of this mutually beneficial compromise between age-old expectations characteristic of Hour of 13 and what is freshened by Davis‘ own vocal performance. The best traditional doom metal tends to more often than not present as the affected ancestor of heavy psychedelic rock and the sort of ‘given’ notion here is that the reverb effect on the vocals here not only registers along the lines of a deathrock influence in mood and atmosphere but also that of occult, or just “dark” psychedelic rock/doom traditions. The dirging, trancelike quality of the album does partially stem from Davis‘ vocals standing out from prior releases but the effect is still a late 70’s level of organic heaviness and stoned remission thanks to plenty of vocal layers, almost exclusively swinging heavy rock leads, and a particularly round treatment of the bass guitar tone.

Not every moment lands, the greater listening experience is consistent nearly to a fault. The deadpan Satanic sway ’emitted from the glowing lights beneath the garage door’ tonality of ‘Black Magick Rites’ is distant, possessed and declarative. This’ll be the hardest transition from ‘333’ to this record, the sentimental edge of Swanson‘s vocals occasionally dominated the guitar work in the past but heavy rock shakedowns the guitars deliver here become the major focus beyond the cold cadence of the songwriting otherwise. The full listen surely isn’t a variety hour, a dynamic showpiece, or anything less than an honestly presented vibe-obsessed doom metal record and the lyrics do a fine job supporting the tunnel vision otherwise, reading like subtitles from certain scenes from Häxan, sexualized, demonized and easily read as indoctrination and revelry of thee possessed. Right, so, classic Hour of 13 and still largely incomparable in its boldest presentation no matter what decade or scene we dig up for reference. Does that make for a memorable, masterful, or merely palatable release? My bias is stuck back in 2012 to some degree where the entrancement in that tonal pool had peaked for me; This record appeals to me as a step further back in time, an update in fidelity and bleakest atmosphere but without the somewhat emotional resonance that’d pushed me beyond the threshold a decade ago. If I were to draw up a capsular list of the best doom metal albums from the year, I’d be more kind to ‘Black Magick Rites’ for the sake of its isolated consideration better revealing quality being above average for our times. From this vantage point it is easy to consider the album a “new occult” shade of psych applied to a familiar sound and style, collection worthy but not the most savage high the Hour of 13 name has seen to date. A high recommendation.

High recommendation. (80/100)

Rating: 8 out of 10.
TITLE:Black Magick Rites
LABEL(S):Shadow Kingdom Records
RELEASE DATE:August 27th, 2021
BUY & LISTEN:Bandcamp
GENRE(S):Doom Metal

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