“Beneath the fragile crust of this modern age of reason, a darker world lies waiting, primordial and pure.”
Of Atlantean Kodex’s many virtues, perhaps foremost among them is that they don’t do anything by halves. Plenty of bands, particularly in the genre of epic doom metal (the clue is in the name), write long, winding compositions and employ a melting pot of archaic imagery, but the Bavarian troupe’s commitment runs deeper than that. Their songs are long, yes, but more than that, they’re monumental. Every note quivers under the weight of ages, every passage is incandescent with import, every lyric encompasses the sweep of thousands of years. It sounds as though they take every bar of music that could possibly be considered meager or trivial or mundane and ruthlessly strip it out, leaving only perfect, distilled grandeur. The word epic gets trivialised so often in modern parlance that it’s easy to lose sight of what it can actually entail. Atlantean Kodex write music that is structurally and logistically imposing, yes, but more than that, they occupy a persistently, almost oppressively majestic register. The White Goddess exists on the scale of civilisations and dynasties and continents. To listen to “Twelve Stars and an Azure Gown” is to contemplate the tragedy of the fragmented lineage of Europe. To listen to “Sol Invictus” is to be confronted by a sort of Hobbesian underworld lurking beneath modern civilisation. If that sounds grandiose, it’s only because it’s difficult to talk about Atlantean Kodex without using grandiose rhetoric, and frankly, the best metal album of 2013 warrants a bit of grandiosity.
Atlantean Kodex’s 2010 debut, The Golden Bough, was the subject of the first review I ever wrote for Heathen Harvest, and in hindsight, I feel that I afforded that impressive album less praise than it was due. It was a bold and memorable statement of intent, an unapologetic antithesis to the heartlessness of much of modern metal that invigorated a dormant scene. Let me be absolutely clear on this point however: compared to its three-years-later follow-up, The White Goddess, The Golden Bough makes all the impression of a fart in a bathtub.
Certainly, this sophomore outing feels like the logical continuation of the trajectory that the band started along in 2010, with enormous songs influenced by the triumvirate of Twilight of the Gods-era Bathory, Into Glory Ride-era Manowar and every era of Solstice, combined with a lyrical fixation on pan-European folklore which is far more rigorous than most of their metal brethren (guitarist and founding member Manuel Trummer is known by day as an assistant professor of folklore at the University of Regensburg). The enormous, crushing down-strokes that sound like the heartbeat of the Earth remain intact, as do the dramatic and solemn leads layered over the top. Even the album’s title (unabridged: The White Goddess: A Grammar of Poetic Myth, the name of an essay by Robert Graves from 1948) is inherited from a track on its predecessor.
In every particular though, The White Goddess represents a quantum leap ahead for the band, in performance, composition, lyricism and production. More erudite and adventurous melodic phrasing deepens the listener’s engagement with the band’s atavistic expression; more confident and flowing song structures sow emotional investment and, in due course, reap enormous catharsis. There are no jarring moments like the verse-to-bridge transition in “Disciples of the Iron Crown” or any duds like “Vesperal Hymn.” It’s an altogether deeper, more affecting experience, and the difference makes itself immediately and profoundly felt. Following the majestic opening fanfare “Trumpets of Doggerland”, the album takes the listener aback with the aggressive and virile “Sol Invictus”. Guitarists Trummer and Michael Koch burst forth into a riff possessed of huge momentum and infectious, rousing energy. The ten-minute track goes on to perfectly negotiate a series of shifts, from a recurring chorus hook that sounds less apt for a festival crowd than as a rallying cry for an army a hundred thousand strong, through a tempestuously heavy bridge propped up by Mario Weiss’ thunderous double kick (the liner notes credit him with battery rather than anything so prosaic as “drums”). It is, at all turns, a startlingly robust song that, for all its epochal scope, never once feels leaden or ham-handed. When it was released online as a promo track ahead of the album’s release, I thought it was one of the best songs I’d heard all year and surely would be a highlight of the record, rather than a precedent that Atlantean Kodex would repeatedly surpass.
Surpass it they do, though. Enthusiastically. “Heresiarch” gives Marcus Becker an opportunity to exhibit his massively improved vocal performance, his crisp and clear enunciation giving life to the frequently picturesque word choice in the lyrics, his impassioned cries making the four syllables of the title resonate with reverential dread. A slow, grinding, foreboding track, it’s the most “doomy” song on the album, conjuring to mind images of decaying acropolises or of mountainsides being ground down by glaciers. It makes for a fascinating opposition with the calm, plaintive “Twelve Stars and an Azure Gown,” whose euphoric and poignant chorus heralds the return of a beneficent deity. The White Goddess is stately and solemn, but it’s not dour or gloomy.
The absolute highlight of the album by my reckoning, though, is “Enthroned in Clouds and Fire,” which spends six minutes accumulating almost unbearable levels of tension in a perfectly pitched slow-boil. Becker’s vocals take on the quality of a mad prophet invoking the end-times (one pair of lines in particular sends a shiver down my spine every time I hear them – “when money turns to iron and our misery burns red/when two-hundred gulden cannot buy a loaf of bread.” It looks innocuous written out, but wait ‘til you hear Becker’s intonation. It finally climaxes in one great burst (“The Great Cleansing is near!/It is near!/Can you feel it?/IT IS HERE!”), and I’ve heard songs being compared to roller-coasters before, but I’ve seldom had them actually produce the sensation of my stomach jumping into my chest.
The White Goddess, in sum, is overwhelming. Its total running time comes in at less than an hour, but listening to it from beginning to end, the mind boggles at the mythic scope of the ideas and intensity of the emotions played out from the overture of “Trumpets of Doggerland” through to the final, sad strains of piano that close out “White Goddess Unveiled”. It is a triumphant success as a slab of browbeating epic heavy metal and as a poignant poetic discourse that immerses listeners in the larger sweep of European folklore. If The Golden Bough was a proof of concept, then The White Goddess is its ultimate realisation, the work of fiercely intelligent musicians whom have mastered their craft and possess the passion to match. Uncompromising, fiery, resplendent in its grandeur, The White Goddess can claim its place in the metal pantheon. I have no fucking idea how Atlantean Kodex plan to top this.
01) Trumpets of Doggerland (There Were Giants in the Earth in Those Days)
02) Sol Invictus (With Faith and Fire)
03) Bilwis (Sorcery and Witchcraft in Eastern Bavaria)
04) Heresiarch (Thousandfaced Moon)
05) Twelve Stars and an Azure Gown (An Anthem for Europa)
06) Der Untergang der Stadt Passau (Flaming Sword of the Watchers)
07) Enthroned in Clouds and Fire (The Great Cleansing)
08) White Goddess Unveiled (Crown of the Sephiroth)