Without question there is a trend within arts and culture that injects random arcane belief and occult imagery without rhyme or reason. All of a sudden occult rock is blowing up music magazines, fashion lines are adorned with magickal sigils, and devilish darkness over-saturates practically every corner of consumable products. Some would argue that this is end times. Others would argue that this is clever marketing in our disenfranchised post-post-modern world. At first, this was thrilling. Some truly sinister acts were starting to reach high places. Every other horror film featured Satan in some capacity. Black leather, dark makeup, and gothic style became en vogue in women’s fashion (a bit of my own bias here…). But, of course, it isn’t long until the majority clamours for every possible trend available to them in order to effectively extinguish any real fire of sincerity. This is not going to turn into a diatribe against youth hipster culture, but it goes without saying that they always have some hand in this process. Unfortunately, as always, the sincere underculture is inevitably misrepresented, parodied, and paraded around foolishly.
However, let’s narrow focus and concentrate on music here, and more specifically on the throwback occult rock movement. Everything cycles around again, especially with effortless online Google searching , and it must have been just a matter of time until the sound and approach of bands like Coven, Black Widow, Acid, Roky Erickson, et al. found another foothold. The sound and power of these bands cannot be overstated and it is no wonder that such an explosion has taken hold! However, we have reached the logical end of that explosion. We are nearly at the point of parody and utter pointlessness. The devil’s music has become the domain of major record labels and style magazines. Bands like The Devil’s Blood and Jex Thoth showed us a refreshing take on this sound, with sincerity and quality; and, since then a host of imitators (and unfortunately pale ones at that) have flourished. Many of these acts profess no actual belief in the heavy spiritual landscape that they are exploring, and mainly employ it for shock value and appeal. At this point it is too little, too late.
Within this latter group falls a band like Jess and the Ancient Ones. These Finns present another iteration of female fronted occult rock, albeit with strong musicianship and additional elements of proto-metal and its various offspring. With their latest Astral Sabbat EP, very hot on the heels of last year’s full-length album, the band strikingly embodies where this so-called movement is right now. When even The Devil’s Blood is packing it in, you know things have run their course. We are not offered much in the way of originality, and with everything in the right, paint-by-numbers place they seem to consistently fall flat. Female vocals, check; organs, check; hard rock structure, check; ambiguous witchery and occultism, check; various triangles and symbols, check. In spite of this, Jess and the Ancient Ones miss the mark entirely, presenting us with songs’ worth of recycled material that we have all heard several times over. The song writing and vocal quality are not exemplary enough to save the rehashed sound unfortunately. The wheel doesn’t require reinventing – that isn’t the point.
With only three songs, it is worth looking at each one to see where they contribute or detract from the release individually. It would be unduly harsh to present this EP as without merit and write it off completely. Jess and co. do write some very interesting parts, and, in fact, the title track is quite a good song. The chorus is heavy, the riffs are catchy, the organs are on fire, and Jess actually sounds sincere (despite her lyrics being painfully on the nose at times). But that is exactly where this EP stops being enjoyable all together. Following is the utterly useless and detrimental cover of Dutch rock band Shocking Blue’s “Long and Lonesome Road”. The song is flanked by two originals chalked full of occultic imagery, but presents not even a sliver of mysticism or darkness. In fact, the song itself is not very good at base, not the fault of Jess and her boys, but the choice is so obscure and unnecessary that one wonders why they wasted their time at all. Onwards to the next bit of dullness finds the drawn-out “More than Living”, which again has occasional moments of enjoyment but many more that do very little. The acoustic laden intro contains a rather evocative lead, but it only simmers down further and further. Not even the crunchy riff can pick up the mood here – all remains at about halfway between formless disinterest and possibly listenable. The fact that it takes a full 10 minutes for this song to really pick up speed and find any momentum is certainly not in the realm of good song writing. Jess also seems like she just discovered a beginner’s book of occultism yesterday and quickly wrote lyrics with some nice buzzwords regarding “astral planes”, “serpents of power”, “sabbats” etc. etc. There is an overall sincerity desperately lacking in the vocal delivery – in fact, her vocal style as a whole seems much better cut out for country western rather than a psychedelic rock band delivering methods of the dark arts. (Cheeky sarcasm intended.)
It is not necessarily that Jess and co. are a bad band by any stretch. That is a terribly subjective and obtuse statement to make. It is that they are so mediocre and so derivative, which strikes more of a negative chord than anything. The first full-length had moments with vocal melodies completely lifted from some of their peers – far too obviously – definitely not a good place to start. With Astral Sabbat, their intention seems to be to claim a spot for themselves, distanced from this movement; however, they only succeed in finding more of the same or just utter mediocrity. Watered-down music such as this is again indicative of the eroding potency found in any contemporary darkness and mystery. Saturation eventually breeds disdainful iterations and it isn’t likely that these trends will be reversing anytime soon. Those toiling away in obscurity will sincerely preserve the spirit and keep the fires burning. Meanwhile, may we turn our gaze upon those more deserving of our time.
01) Astral Sabbat
02) Long and Lonesome Road
03) More than Living