ALTARS – Ascetic Reflection (2022)REVIEW

True freedom ultimately reads as burdensome advantage under the watchful third eye and ears of human authenticity, wherein actions supposedly reach a plane of thoughtful sentience when matched tightly with personal values. Regular self-applied interrogation of this parity of personage creates a nauseating vertigo when graced with the realization, or, the forced acceptance that most of the masses carry no such mirror of the ‘self’ to drive away the ingrained, complacent hypocrisies of normative societal participation. The common sense truth of the deceptive, inauthentic will of the average reality-blindered human animal is hardly kept at bay by way of an invisible, farcical glue of civility yet it consistently pressures the empath, the high achiever, and the earnest seekers of willful living to impart a cruel and unusual standard upon themselves. To the Buddhist this is vaguely the path away from the cycle of life, death and rebirth whereas to the ‘western’ philosopher it becomes an important crack in the always sunny skies of essentialist thought, yet to the average largely unequipped person today it is the disassembly of naïve constructs of identity when their duality is exposed on the path toward honest, naturally cynical self-examination. In the hands of reborn Adelaide/Melbourne, Australia-based death metal trio Altars it is the first thoughtform to manifest considerable waves beyond the formation of their regenerating neural tube as a long period of gestation began motioning toward this return to form. ‘Ascetic Reflection‘ is the vessel returned, its contents rich with the wisdom of Death by which we receive their reinvigorated existentialist craft after years in mourning. It is every bit the surrealistic, swerving commotion fans’ve been wanting since their debut in 2013.

Altars formed circa 2005 between folks whom were still largely in their late teens, or, reaching adulthood at the time they’d begin writing and rehearsing their first grip of songs. Those initial feats, which’d largely stemmed from the efforts of guitarist Lewis Fischer before being built up as a crew, would ultimately manifest as their first demo (‘Altars‘, 2008) wherein they’d still been worming through the motions of Morbid Angel influenced beginnings, giving the sludgy revision of said group their own obscure touch. That isn’t to say they’d achieved anything lesser than a lot of their peers in Australasia at the time but that we wouldn’t see the full reveal of their inventive rhythmic streak until a split with Tzun Tzu in 2009 would expose their Gorguts (or, early Kataklysm) tinged, mentally frantic character. In some ways they’d finally reached a professional standard once their follow-up release, a split with Heaving Earth (‘Engulfed‘, 2012) yet these pieces were fearlessly blurring traditional forms in massive, nigh psychedelic ways while showing some unique percussive ideas and reigned in some of the more wild vocal runs found on their earlier stuff. Those two songs’d essentially been demo tracks from their preparation for the recording of a debut longplayer (‘Paramnesia‘, 2013) which followed fairly quickly. This first album is the major reason folks like me are wide-eyed and howling hot for the return of Altars.

Of all of the unsung Australian avant-garde and dissonant-adjacent elite death metal from the last twenty years Altars‘ debut is a bit of an outlier as one that’d grow in its monolith during the silence beyond. This is largely for the sake of it being a crucial balancing act of extremely modernist death metal ideas a la Mitochondrion and Ulcerate with just the right amount of classicist death metal forms and rhythmic phrasing which I’d compared to the post-‘Domination‘ era of death metal back in 2013 when I’d named ‘Paramnesia‘ #20 on my Best Albums of 2013 list. Intoxicating use of dissonant endpoints to riffs, complex rhythmic churn yet still bearing a pronounced and recognizable skeleton of tonal traditions it was not so far out of step with the best death metal at the time but felt a step above for the sake of those dense, abyssal draining works tied into a holistic theme of existential statement, one which dealt with repetition of behaviors and the cyclic nature of existence in a brilliantly abstract way. The ache for its continuation burrowed on ’til the band had formally, but quietly chosen to dissolve circa 2016 and certainly not out of disinterest via the band or the public. Vocalist and post-2011 bassist Cale Schmidt (Monomakh) wasn’t able to continue beyond that point and well, filling the void left by a rare sort of fellowe must’ve been more nauseating than pressing on without.

In the interim the core group kept at it between various projects and we can consider this hiatus far more than a silver lining with the results in mind. Drummer Alan Cadman featured on various recordings from Tzun Tzu as well as my Album of the Year pick for 2021 while Fischer joined Ignivomous for their incredible return in 2019 with ‘Hieroglossia‘ which I still feel I’d underrated. Somewhere between those accomplishments and what was perhaps a lingering feeling of dread, creeping up the spine with inquiry as to what might’ve been possible in Altars of they’d managed to continue piercing the veil they’d finally felt it possible to revive the project with the right blessings in hand circa 2021, now featuring Brendan Sloan of Convulsing on bass and vocals. That’d be the point of hyper overload, right, since we’ve not heard much from Sloan since 2019 and if you’re not sure why that is a bummer, his performances here make the case and ‘Grievous‘ is still very much in need of more siblings. With all of these pieces finally in place and the record in hand it feels as if ‘Ascetic Reflection‘ is the exact right antidote to wash away three years of waiting and five years spent accepting Altars cessation.

Gaps in time tend to zombify forward-thinking metal bands as they take their first steps into new life, weighted and entrenched by the creaking joints of a well-decayed body yet we know Altars‘ve always been at home between worlds of both yesterday and tomorrow as traditionally grounded aggressors who’d developed their own sort of abstraction from legendary muscle memory. That isn’t to say that ‘Ascetic Reflection‘ finds the band holding back for a moment within the oily streaking of its surrealistic bleeding onto a taut and explosive death metal canvas but (much like Portal) we still find their major points of origin providing the greater horizon line for the journey taken. With that said this is a far more technically accomplished, patiently composed avant-death metal record than its predecessor which spends far less time clobbering by sheer volume of notes, enjoying the dips and sways of their dance of death (er, existentialism) with a wisened, sharper angled approach. The instrumental ingress of “Slouching Towards Gomorrah” lights the watchfires in this sense before the first single from the album “Perverse Entity” presents the twisted soul of Altars, dripping in elastic and malevolent whorls of riff, intermittently punctuated by dissonant-edged marches and a swaggering intoxicated sense of rhythmic gush which reaches its frenzied peak around ~2:16 minutes in. The album is just waking up at this point, though.

Luminous Jar” should rightfully serve as the first Oh, what the fuck (in a good way) reaction from most listeners as an obvious enough standout performance nestled into the caved chest of ‘Ascetic Reflection‘ for the sake of it featuring the most quick changes, memorable riffs and aggressive moments found on the album. This is the sort of signature sound of Altars‘ still-shedding state, imaginatively sewing the new found atmospheric patience of this second record into a piece which emphasizes the dissonant aspect of their guitar performances with a strong push for brutality early on, only resting for trilled riffs (~2:57 minutes) and a brief reprisal of the volcanic purge of their early development (~4:37 minutes). When dissected in such a way we erase a bit of the spontaneity felt upon discovery to start but these aren’t the sort of riffs that get old or debased by closer examination as they add such profound junctive marks in binding together a memorable, exciting listening experience. As we reach the end of Side A they’ve not settled into a restful, easy mode or thrown anything plaintive or generic into the mix as “Black Light Upon Us” reminds of the inventive percussive strengths of Altars past-and-present within its playfully brutal threshing of momentum-built waves, a toppling and roaring manifestation which feels enormous in the moment yet doesn’t drag ass within its considerable ~8 minute rub.

Ascetic Reflection” ensures the ever-doubting ear that Side A wasn’t a fluke or a pit for all of the best ideas Altars are willed to wield here on their return, though this is arguably one of the more challenging grunts of meter which checks flow for the sake of an abrasive, center-focused resonance. The suggestion is that the two sides here are mirrored in oppositional energy with an inversion occurring as each expresses and this darker, obstructed flow brings some of the more stifled and aggressive pieces of the lot while also providing a strong amount of variety as the full listen progresses. “Anhedonia” provides a drudging, numbing progression unto the sort of big deal piece on Side B “Opening the Passage”, which breaks into an Virus or Oranssi Pazuzu-esque, noise rocking scrape ~1:25 minutes in and continues to expand this idea as the song presses on. This is sort of the big moment to convince me I needed to wear ‘Ascetic Reflection‘ as a second skin for a while, catching the psychedelic delirium of these details while appreciating how resolute and deliberate all points of force remain within their greater sound. There is a certain level of mastery shoved into Side B which manages to match the ambition of the first half in a satisfying way, completing the thought rather than leaving it hanging as most abstract death metal records tend to.

Though there were some pressurized expectations coming from me as a vocal fan of Altars‘ past work I cannot say I’d realistically required more than parity of style, artistic direction, and render to generally approve. ‘Ascetic Reflection‘ instead cracks open a different dimension, perhaps aided by temporally granted realizations within the interim dormancy, and pours of ideas that stretch beyond the limited expressivity of a then still only developing point of mastery back in 2013. In this sense it feels like a third or fourth album, one from a band who’ve matured past the stage of unsure, repetitious or unfinished ideas and phrasing into a state of constantly redeeming detail and commanding voice. Not quite a blindside on my part but, a step beyond that managed to keep me wide-eyed and slack-jawed well beyond the compulsory spins unto familiarization. A very high recommendation.

Very high recommendation. (92/100)

Rating: 9 out of 10.
TITLE:Ascetic Reflection
LABEL(S):Everlasting Spew Records
RELEASE DATE:July 8th, 2022

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