Review Summary: Altar of Plagues settle for less than what they're capable of.
One of the more annoying things I come across as an avid music listener is bands forgetting what made them special. It doesn't stop the band from releasing something competent, sometimes very good, material - but when they forget the techniques that got them there in the first place, they never really transcend that unless they find something else they're exceptional at. Altar of Plagues' debut, White Tomb
, had an exceptional atmosphere. The band masterfully worked it into every little bit of the instrumentation, creating an album nothing short of brilliant due to them masterfully entwining both the music and the atmosphere. It was incredibly captivating, and that's what set White Tomb
apart from most of the competition. Altar of Plagues seem to have abandoned that with Mammal
, and it suffers for it. That's not to say the album isn't good, because it is, but it doesn't transcend good - which I know this band are more than capable of. Mammal
quite frustrating to conclude due to the wasted potential, withered away by questionable song writing, bad mixing and overall just bad decisions made by the band.
The first bad decision they made was the mixing and mastering. Many refer to this mix as much rawer than their other outputs, and where it is to an extent, there is something almost offensively clean to it. It comes across as faceless and impersonal, and it hinders the atmospheric side of the band and the instrumentation quite considerably. Listening to this just doesn't pull you in due to the sterile sound that the record creates, it just sounds lifeless. Maybe this was intentional, since the album is themed around the band's views on death, but if it makes an album less enjoyable then I have to ask if it was worth the sacrifice. Everything seems so distant from each other in the mix and if anything it certainly hinders the way the listener can get lost in it because it gives the impression there is something between you and the music that prevents you from letting it touch you on an emotional level.
That's not to say that some things haven't improved, because they have. The drums are a lot more prominent and feel like their own entity rather than just a mechanism to carry the song along like they felt in their previous efforts (to an extent). But they seem to have steered into this almost too drastically by putting the drums too high in the mix, making them distracting despite being well played. It makes the album seems confused as to what it really wants to be, the rest of the instrumentation seems distant enough to leave room for the atmosphere to take over - then the thundering drums throw a spanner in the works.
The other issue with this album is the fact that the band haven't learned to stop meandering their ideas to ridiculous lengths. The entirety of the second track Feather and Bone
sounds like it has been carried on far longer than the initial idea gave it merit to. The third track, When the Sun Drowns in the Ocean
takes this to ridiculous lengths by having half the song pre-recordings of Keening (or as others call it, sad bleating women) and half of it being a rather tepid post-rock attempt. It may be the shortest song on the album, but at over 8 minutes it is still quite a lengthy listen. The other two tracks are the highlights of the album, the last track All Life Converges to Some Center
possibly being one of the better tracks of their career, but the aforementioned meandering and questionable song writing really seems to hinder them both. The fourth track doesn't end the album very well, having quite a lifeless last moment before going into an ambient outro that doesn't suck you in. Perhaps if the album sucked me in before that point it would have been effective, but it was too little too late. Luckily the track Neptune is Dead
doesn't falter as much as the others, but it doesn't flow anywhere near as well as their other material has. Some of the riffs that flow into each other just don't sound as if they were meant to be played consecutively.
Despite all this, it's an enjoyable album. But it's only barely enjoyable, and is hindered almost beyond comprehension by the fact that Altar of Plagues are capable of much better than this. This is a considerable misstep for them, though luckily I think the talent behind Altar of Plagues is still there - it just has to be rediscovered. Though every decision here that ruins the album for me was probably intentional, and the faceless, distant approach was to further the meaning of death itself, it's difficult to stand behind them due to the decisions effectively wasting the potential of a band that clearly has plenty of it. It's a shame that the potential has to go to waste, but I guess every band has its misstep. Here's hoping Altar of Plagues realize their missteps on this album and correct them for the next offering.