Though it took a decade of trial-and-error, futility and recompense to arrive upon a well-realized point of intent without a ‘clean’ trail of stylized notions behind their winding path the work of Penza, Russia-based black metal quartet Orthank manifests all the more thoughtfully stated as they stand upon the remnants of scorched firmament today. In opposition, freed by the clarity afforded their wide-screened and ghastly form of orthodox craft, comes album number four. ‘Orthank‘ finds an impressive balance between the atmospheric, the gnarled and the somewhat technical in building its ambitiously fuming style as a richly realized conceptual feat divided into four voluminous hymns of mystified devotion.
Orthank formed in 2010 as a vision of black metal from guitarist/vocalist Rodislav (Meister Leonhardt) alongside what like-minded, or, similarly interested musicians in the Penza area he could manage. They’d set out to produce some manner of true to form black metal which naturally reflected the Slavic style of the time which, in that early part of the decade, meant nods to atmospheric pagan black metal informed the result. Their debut full-length (‘Тишиною лесов наслаждаясь‘, 2012) and the quick to follow second record, (‘Years of Ashes and Memory‘, 2013) were modest CD-r and cassette runs in a style that fans of Forest and such would appreciate, far more oaken than a BlazeBirth Hall reference might suggest alongside some strong fealty to Quorthon agreed upon overall. The lineup becomes unsteady from there as that folkish pagan black metal side was replaced by something more classic, simple and aggressive with the ‘Rotting World‘ (2014) EP which took their sound into a more brash, raw Katharsis-esque whip and the realization of that sound on their third LP (‘Orthank‘, 2016), a release which was picked up by Bestial Burst and later basically redacted for a re-recorded and rewritten version in the form of ‘Enslaving and Idolatry‘ (2022) which features a line-up they’d describe as more representative of their compositional and performative goals as they were meant to be heard. I appreciate the stubbornness of their vision in the sense that nothing was “right” until the visionary had realized the culmination of their current stylistic niche.
Thy promethean abundance, our inverted martyr. — Christian apocrypha was typically identified as such not because authorship could not be confirmed but for the sake of the work planting seeds of doubt in the motives of their God within its narrative. Self-contradictory exposition remains plentiful otherwise, eh, but in antiquity the characterization of God was fiercely determined by the perceived pious touch of the author’s pen. After all these culturally nabbed storylines were meant to thrill the mind of the cult’s new converts with the promise that living, acting and thinking a certain way might land one the chance to “walk with God in Heaven” yet a few books submitted certainly made the blasphemer or the rebel angel the star of the show as their damning actions were taken for the sake of the betterment of humanity. The Book of Enoch and the Apocalypse of Abraham in particular create anti-heroes, well-meaning deception of divine edict that most readers could quickly justify, making the harsh judgements of God appear repugnant, severe to a fault. The Nephilim, the Watchers, and all fallen angels of apocrypha act as promethean givers in these writings which are valuable to various forms of Gnosticism. ‘Orthank‘ explores this point of interest through characterization of Azazel, one of the Watchers and a fallen angel who’d embark on an exodus to Earth not only for the sexual conquest of human women but to interbreed, intermingle and advance humanity’s knowledge of the implements of war and from the point of view of the pious this was seen as treasonous corruption. Astrology, meteorology, lunar cycles, magick enchantments… all of it passed from angels to humans as a horrifying “sin” in the eyes of God. To best understand the significance of these events and the angle which Orthank approaches them the assigned reading may very well bring weight to the full listen and stronger reference to the lyrics.
‘Orthank‘ is split into four chapters which line up with four ~10 minute longform songs each of which describe the Watchers exodus down to Earth, their pact (and enactment thereof) to interbreed with humans, their war as Nephilim against the Demiurge, and finally Azazel‘s imprisonment as the scapegoat for the sin of corrupting of mankind. To illustrate these big, involved scenes typically reserved for gigantic frescoes Orthank wholly expand upon the general orthodox black metal influenced vernacular of their rhythm guitar voicing, leaning into slow and simmering works which only occasionally boil above a mid-pace as they achieve some manner of dynamic performance on this surreal, often dizzied and exasperated black metal record. Opener “Tricephalous-Dominus” builds a tone of dissent, of frustration and storming action which is immediately leagues beyond what the band has presented in the past in terms of precision and intricacy of arrangement thanks to drummer M.N.I. (Затемно, Ordo ad Chao, et al.) and bassist Underground both of whom have brought some strong consistency and technique to the band since joining back in 2019. The Deathspell Omega-tinged theatric nature of the record is suggested on th opening piece through its tragedian, sinister melodic undercurrent in depiction of a fall from a high place, an exodus in truth but one with great purpose under wing.
The oath upon the mountain. — On “Hermon’s Sin” The Watchers have descended to Earth, their commanders swearing an oath that they will take wives among the daughters of men and, in passing along their divine knowledge, take on their sin per said union. If the introduction of the first song had hinted at the virtues of the full listen as something squarely along the orthodox black metal sphere I believe most will be surprised to find this second piece reaching much deeper into the tormented tonal well which crumbles in the middle and seethes back to a point of wrath nearby the end. It is an experiential piece and a good indication of what the next two promise, though this is slightly more subdued for the sake of the narrative. The ~14 minute “The Eclipse Paradise, The Nephilim War” is the main event, the piece to always call for attention from across the room and the one that’d given me pause most often as its grand stretches of aggressive pulverization and erratic discordant rhythms reach an avant-garde frenzied state the deeper one digs into the piece. It isn’t the be-all, end-all statement from this type of black metal but we do find Orthank developing their own voice within their long and moderately involved compositions. “Last Breath on Fallen Paradise” continues this scene, or depiction directly off the back of the previous piece in terms of tone and narrative but this piece is not as busied with needled-at guitar interest to the degree that the first three were and instead serves as a sweeping exit beyond the song’s halfway point.
Repeated listens of ‘Orthank‘ created a trancelike state of mind in my case, a fixation upon its dreary narrative voice for a story which gives heroic hymnal to the punishment of our liberator and eternal exile. Not every point of dissonant poignance hits, such as the raw wrathful layering of “The Hermon’s Sin” not fully connecting in approach of its middle third, and some of their use of slower builds didn’t pay off despite avoiding an overabundance of repetition on these longer pieces. Overall it serves as the most impressive Orthank release to date which builds upon their intended vision with an engrossing conceptual undertaking. Fans interested in the great spheres of orthodox black metal, the unshackled stuff that arrives upon the fringes of devotional ideals and the premise of great works, will find a volumetric ton of inspired atmospheric and aggressive density herein. A high recommendation.
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