CELESTIAL GRAVE – Vitriolic Atonement (2022)REVIEW

The poison-mouthed pungency of the open-aired corpse, its naked and unburied rot settling a thick drape of detestable cloud designed to accost the senses, warns passersby of death’s danger. The ground turns sweeter beneath, sugared by the watery decay of the husk as the lungs of nature breathe deep this bloated infestation. The stench initially redirects our path as death drops more and more in place, rot within homes and public areas displaying the cull as its reek becomes increasingly pervasive. The senses adapt to the stench of death over time, though, what was once pressing alarm turns to inert numbness, a natural odour which inspires no more curiosity than the scent of ozone after a good rain or the odd sensation of moss and mud mushing underfoot. The bitter tongues seeking salvation within the esoteric reaches of Finnish black metal duo Celestial Grave‘s second full-length LP lap up the scent of the necrotized, relish in the corpse’s persistent cyclic disintegration as they tribute with regret the passage yet marvel in the moldering spectacle of death. ‘Vitriolic Atonement‘ is hungered yet patient imbue of ceremonial etudes, an unhidden and outright melodic current of wracking dread occasionally masque’d by torrents of beauteous, sentimental reverence and ugliest chaotic intrusions. Their acts are impressive psychopomp for untended bodies, a much needed procession served with zero concern for an increasingly anti-spiritual, surrealistic reality today.

Whenever they’d started, somewhere nearby 2016 or somesuch, Celestial Grave were originally obsessed with putrefaction, ritual, and occult magick which was personally defined and I suppose in coldest practical terms it meant for blustering horrors on their first demo (‘Burial Ground Trance‘, 2016) and slightly less emergent and more clearly mapped melodicism versus riffcraft on their follow-up 7″ (‘Pvtrefactio‘, 2017) a year later. They were grotesque acts served with bleak collage art and well-gritted up recordings. This was well enough in line with black metal idealism and reflective of the Finnish daimonian underground yet we’d only had glimpses of readable music value at that point. Their ambitions were obscured in reverie yet, they were in fact in a singular entrancement that’d been appreciated. If you don’t mind a personal rant on valuation of black metal expressionism… the modern upper-echelon of real, tangible black metal essence must be a reflection of personal spirituality to succeed, an unforced and raw directive applied to an introverted persistence with an instrument or compositional dance. With this in mind the Finnish duo hadn’t yet shown their persistence outside of “Deteriorating Angel” (three quarters formed as it was) which’d thankfully prove to be the foil going forward.

The throes of Celestial Grave‘s debut full-length (‘Secular Flesh‘, 2019), which I’d reviewed favorably when it’d released, are intensely remembered as I’d wracked my brain for some extended period of time hoping to gouge out the experience in fitting description yet it’d have to boil down to Finnish black metal references (Sargeist, Blood Red Fog), as well as some mention of French and Netherlands-based abstraction of forms, all the while more concerned with vocal expression and rhythm guitar inflection than the greater shapely insanity of the thing. Of course it was a relatively unique experience, four pieces spread over roughly half an hour and each its own sort of incantation but it didn’t feel like they’d hit their emotional breakthrough ’til “Gasping From Lips of Night”. As it turns out all of this provenance is a bit useless since the jump between their first 7″ to that debut LP is equally served here, ‘Vitriolic Atonement‘ appears leagues abreast of what ‘Secular Flesh‘ had achieved in its bundle of hissing and howling mania and now shapes into music that is most concerned with throngs of elaborate consonant melody written for two guitars juxtaposed with contrapuntal, counteractive passageways. You’ll likely recognize he raw and morose feeling of the band but their musicianship and compositional skills are now set leagues beyond the past.

Cracking into this second full-length it should be immediately clear that Celestial Grave have little interest in making the same album twice. Though their exaggerated vocal performances are here the raw anti-production of previous releases is at least somewhat tempered to allow the guitar performances to direct the listening experience and I suppose for the sake of these very complete and deeply sentimental melodies which encompass grand portions of each ~5-6 minute song. The nox and nausea of the band is still there, though, and this manifests within the disarray created by the two main guitar lines running in tandem, in opposition, and occasionally in some very shattered ways (see: “Cadaverous Solace”). Yes, some of these songs “rock” in terms of the rhythm section and the elaborate manner of hooks and haunting dual rhythms which quickly indicate themselves but, the well-seasoned listener will soon make the distinction between a unique Finnish melodic black metal band and any sense of post-black metal, or blackened post-punk etc. Although, fair enough, it’ll be a blurry line to start as you dive into the ringing feedback, buzzing amp noise, and kicking rock beat of opener “Eucharist”, your first impression would understandably be the inverse and “Cadaverous Solace” almost directly continues that thread, developing its own staggered melody which feels related in movement and modulation. It is a brilliant first impression, the sort of word which plants the ear within a chaotic yet inspired emotional mind.

The hills and valleys have eyes (and mouths)… — Much like labelmates Aethyrick these folks are now always developing a core melodic passage in service to the song and of course this will come as a surprising bout of change for established fandom, especially those who can’t necessarily process or parse their focus on dual guitar interactions. I particularly love these elongated threads of phrase and how they interconnect, the best example being the extended standout performances of “Clemency” where their efforts build up to a connective melodic peak, eventually offering a break in the developing torment of it all. The reveal of this song is initially a bit cloying, aching in the ear as sunlight would in the eyes upon exiting the cave, but even if it will read as a “college rock” hook to a certain generation it simply reads as a fresh melodic texture inserted within an album brimming with these sorts of peaking moments. There is some purpose to their tonal flittering, though, as the band suggest a bittersweet reality manifests in their work wherein the lines between heart-stopping beauty (life) and horrifying morbidity (death) are a matter of perspective, it goes without saying that in the realm of black metal a certain respect for natural forces lines up with this thought well enough.

While I enjoyed the profound melodic punk-rhythmic feeling of “The Abyss Exhales” I’ll brave pushing past it for the sake of being head-over for “Exaltation” and its bopping yet tragic rhythms and bent leads which eventually work up to a ranting bluesy, wailing soul. Taken out of context with the record it’ll likely read as a sentimental post-rock influenced song, a quick stab at an exciting guitar hook but the moment begins to transcend as we push out of the break in the song and continue to witness the lead guitar rant develop its repeatedly bent notes, carrying the tune through an effectively distraught headspace with a very simple and repetitive gesture. Of course we are only building up to the immediate jut into “Radiant Tides Below” the quick death of their ~35 minute statement which quickly wheels back into black metal proper. Deeper growls greet us with a gaping, ripped-open chest full of gore allowing for a decidedly most bestial punish rather than majestic reveal to start. Some clean vocals haunt the piece, and some of the most interest non-combative guitar riffs hit on this song but it basically walks us into the light rather than makes a grand statement, our hypnosis unto death complete. It is another curious, cold but still grand exit to a record which’d tugged at the emotional centre of the brain throughout, as if they’d resorted to pulling the plug rather than edge on suffering. This fits with the intended theme, that death comes striking as it pleases, as I’d hoped.

Beyond readily absorbing the emotional weight and profound meditation of ‘Vitriolic Atonement‘ I found myself appreciating Celestial Grave‘s dramatic modern rock hooks and tightly composed, elaborate melodic focus on this record. It is a necessary but unexpectedly due step up for the sake of conveying a host of complex guitar ideas and sentimental drainages which nonetheless read as beauteous and bittersweet lodging for the mind’s entertainment. The full listen was easily enjoyed and void of any clot or blockage in its greater organism, memorable in sway yet harshened to the point of near wreckage just as black metal should be no matter how abstract its musical centre deviates from barbarism unto finesse. A high recommendation.

High recommendation. (82/100)

Rating: 8 out of 10.
TITLE:Vitriolic Atonement
LABEL(S):The Sinister Flame
RELEASE DATE:September 23rd, 2022

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