The metal scene is currently enjoying a resurgence of tropes and aesthetics that were thought to have ended with the 80s. Black Sabbath are back touring with Ozzy on vocals for the first time in 35 years. Bands like Hell, Adramelch and Steel Assassin, originally cult acts dormant for decades, have returned to acclaim as great as or greater than they ever enjoyed in their heyday. New acts aping Iron Maiden or classic thrash are abundant, finding homes on Nuclear Blast and Roadrunner. Retro fascination can be a double-edged sword. On the one hand, it can leech off goodwill and nostalgia, selling listeners’ formative years back to them as carbon copies devoid of new life (Evile, j’accuse). Dig deeper though, and one can find bands exploring new avenues in sounds thought to have been long abandoned.
Enter Norway’s Magister Templi, whose debut “Lucifer Leviathan Logos” was released this year on Italy’s seldom-fallible Cruz Del Sur records. Styling themselves with occultic stage names in the best tradition of Venom, their sound could be broadly described as a split difference between classic Mercyful Fate and Candlemass, with a touch of Celtic Frost thrown in there for seasoning. For subject matter, they utilise a heady stew of references to religious conspiracies, masonic and Thelemic imagery and Lovecraft-derived horror (including, at the start of the track “The Innsmouth Look,” a startling sample from a performance of Lovecraft’s short story “The Shadow over Innsmouth” done by the Atlanta Radio Theatre Company), all executed in the same flamboyant, Hammer Horror register that Mercyful Fate brought to their satanic stylings.
For all that it draws on classic heavy and doom metal touchstones, it’s impressive how consistently “Lucifer Leviathan Logos” keeps the listener off balance for its 37 minutes. The riffs of guitarists Baphomet and Patriark, played with an explosive, shatteringly heavy tone, invoke all manner of weird phrasing and disarming tempo shifts. The songs are structured in broadly recognisable verse/chorus configurations, but the finer details frequently prompt double-takes, like “Leviathan’s” sudden jump in intensity during the bridge midway through, or the crushing rhythmic momentum of “Logos’” verse screeching to a halt for its vocal-driven chorus. Vocalist Abraxas also gives a rather idiosyncratic performance, his dramatic swings in pitch and volume calling to mind David Bower on Hell’s “Human Remains,” albeit with rather more off-kilter enunciation, perhaps due to English not being his native tongue. The whole endeavour recalls the early works of Black Sabbath, in spirit rather more than aesthetic, in that it sounds like the work of musicians guided by convention but not constrained by it. Much like “Paranoid” and “Master of Reality,” works rooted in hard rock and blues, sound structurally free and experimental today now that we have a fixed idea of what a metal song “ought” to sound like, Magister Templi seem to have appropriated the vibe of tension and portent from their 80s idols but played by their own rules with regard to the actual configurations of notes and passages.
When so many retro outfits today seem intent on squashing the aesthetics of the 70s and 80s into generic, one-size-fits-all songwriting, Magister Templi’s freer approach stands out. It also doesn’t yield entirely consistent results: some of their attempts to catch the listener off guard backfire, “The Innsmouth Look” and “Leviathan” in particular seeming to slot into a groove only to jump back out of it again as though they’d been scalded. Their jerky progression frustrates attempts to immerse oneself in their considerable atmosphere. On the other hand, all the pieces seem to fit for “Tiphareth,” in particular its killer opening of roiling drum fills, and there’s no two ways about it: the six-minute opener “Master of the Temple” kicks ass. Based in a dark, stormy variation on the classic three-note gallop before proceeding to a crescendo where gang shouts alternate with Abraxas’ increasingly frenzied screams, and finally culminating in a hypnotic spoken-word recitation, it’s an endlessly re-listenable monster of a track, one of my favourite songs of 2013 thus far. In sum, “Lucifer Leviathan Logos” delivers much and promises more. It’s certainly worth your time and an exciting debut, one that proves new life can be found in bodies thought to be spent.
01) Master of the Temple
03) The Innsmouth Look