'Blood Vaults - The Blazing Gospel of Heinrich Kramer' - The Ruins of Beverast (9/10)
Only in regards to a band of monumental calibre like The Ruins of Beverast could I call its latest album arguably the weakest of the four so far, and simultaneously laud it as one of the year’s strongest musical contenders. The Ruins of Beverast have long been black metal’s best kept secret, and since the gloriously psychotic “Unlock the Shrine”, the one-man act- a longtime creative outlet of former Nagelfar drummer Alexander von Von Meilenwald- he’s been releasing music that’s consistently blown me away for its ambitious scope and atmosphere. Of the three albums The Ruins of Beverast have already released, I have, upon different occasions, thought of each one as potentially being the greatest black metal album ever made. I’ll try to keep background introductions brief, but if you haven’t yet heard “Unlock the Shrine”, “Rain Upon the Impure”, or “Foulest Semen of a Sheltered Elite”, you have yet to hear some of the most impressive and atmospheric metal ever pressed to vinyl. Now completing a transition towards doom metal that began with the last album, “Blood Vaults” is another expectedly excellent achievement, an hour-plus of music that’s as haunting and crushing as anything I’ve heard in the metal sphere this year. Incredibly high expectations aside, The Ruins of Beverast have delivered another masterpiece of atmosphere and intensity, with enough stylistic innovation to distinguish it from past work. This is blackened doom metal of ferocious quality.
The sound of The Ruins of Beverast has evolved beautifully over the course of four albums. Although Von Meilenwald was performing something more along the lines of psychotic black metal in 2004 with “Unlock the Shrine”, each album has reinvented the project as something new. “Rain Upon the Impure” took the black metal to arrogant extremes of atmosphere and composition, verging on a degree of ambition rivalled by Western classical tradition. 2009’s “Foulest Semen of a Sheltered Elite” was another necessary reinvention; now that one summit had been topped, Von Meilenwald began infusing his brand of black metal with doom metal and psychedelia. To summarize, it shouldn’t be surprising to anyone that The Ruins of Beverast have drifted this far away from black metal conventions; even if TROB retains the same malefic atmosphere in the music, the means to getting there have certainly changed.
The Ruins of Beverast’s familiar blend of choral sampling, chaotic production and cinematic vigour are made anew with a crushing heaviness and funereal pacing. Disregarding the fury and aggression inherent in the music’s execution, Von Meilenwald has taken a relatively reserved approach in writing the music this time around. Especially when compared to the sporadic rapture of “Rain Upon the Impure”, the pacing is kept fairly conservative, offering more vested concentration and fewer surprise turns. Although part of me misses the pleasantly mild shock of hearing something unpredictable, the songwriting enjoys a new maturity through its focus. A stunning example of this can be found in the pristine “Malefica”, a dirge-like piece that meticulously erupts with equal parts dread and melancholy. Latin choirs and pipe organ are used brilliantly as a sonic contrast with the thundering metal instrumentation. Orthodox instrumentation is a painfully common trope in black metal, but it’s rare that it ever functions so well as this.
In addition to “Malefica”, “Daemon”, “A Failed Exorcism”, and the unsettling interlude “Trial” all stand out as highlights of the album, and some of the most memorable pieces Von Meilenwald has ever composed. Unfortunately (and this is a first for my experience with a TROB album) I don’t find myself as consistently amazed by each of the tracks. I’m not immune to the fact that a doomier approach entails with it a slower pace and behests a different kind of listening attitude than that of Beverast albums past, but a few of the ideas on “Blood Vaults” feel less profound and engaging than I’d expect from the band. For instance, “Spires, The Wailing City” and “Monument” are both crafted with excellent ingredients, but feel somewhat overdrawn past their due; the ideas themselves are almost homogeneously superb, but even the strongest structures wither given time. While Von Meilenwald is no stranger to long compositions- “Rain Upon the Impure” had even longer average track times than this- the sometimes plodding pace of the compositions can make some of the musical ideas feel less awe-inspiring than they actually are. I felt that Von Meilenwald struck a sublime balance between black metal and doom with the last album, a middle ground between crushing heaviness and exciting dynamics. “Blood Vaults” only sees The Ruins of Beverast tread deeper into doom territory, and while the devastating atmosphere and progressive scope are still here in full, I don’t find myself quite as blown away by this stylistic shift as I have been with his past work. Then again, comparing a pristine mortal vintage to the ambrosia of the gods has never been a fair deal, has it?
Although “Blood Vaults” represents a markedly more reserved take on composition for Von Meilenwald, his execution sounds heavier than ever. I strain myself to think of another guitar tone that has sounded this heavy and crushing. Even though most one-man acts feel fittingly one-sided in their delivery, “Blood Vaults” feels remarkably well-rounded. The orthodox instrumentation is integrated to a haunting effect, and the drums- Von Meilenwald’s flagship instrument- are as intensely performed as ever. As it is made clear from the opening incantation “Apologia”, Von Meilenwald’s vocals take a hideous life of their own. Laden with echoes and a viciously malevolent tone, his growls are plenty evocative and fit the album’s sinister atmosphere and malefic interpretation of Christian theology. His clean vocals- when used- are deep and ominous, and mirror the Latin choirs nicely. Compared to past albums however, it feels like his vocal delivery offers a little less range however, focusing on the low, echoed growls and dismissing much of his higher shrieks. It’s an understandable transformation however; Von Meilenwald understands the implications of this stylistic shift, and The Ruins of Beverast reflects that.
As difficult as it is for me, I feel the only fair way to approach this album is to do one’s best to dissociate it from TROB albums past. Clearly, it’s much harder said than done, but to compare “Blood Vaults” against its predecessors would reveal this as the least vital of the four. With that in mind, I do not mean or hope to say that The Ruins of Beverast has broken its streak of relative perfection; this is a marvelous work, and I have no doubt that Von Meilenwald will continue to release masterful work in his own time. To put it simply, the album is devastating.