Review Summary: The Great Old Ones' debut overcomes its stylistic debts through creative songwriting and an atmosphere that would make Lovecraft proud.
Black metal and horror fiction would seem to be an obvious marriage of style and subject matter; on the other hand, concept albums have a propensity to be either exceptionally good or hilariously bad (take Swans and Metallica as recent examples). The Great Old Ones’ choice of H.P. Lovecraft’s Necronomicon
as their template is a bold move, but it pays off in spades on Al Azif
. Drawing from black metal stylistically and post-metal structurally, the French quintet manage to craft a captivating debut through a chilling atmosphere and unorthodox musicianship.
The Great Old Ones formed in 2011, and have a few obvious parallels to contemporary black metal bands. Wolves in the Throne Room immediately come to mind, with their trademark dynamic shifts, while The Great Old Ones’ vocals and dissonant guitar work suggest a link to fellow Frenchmen Deathspell Omega. This is not to imply a lack of originality, as Al Azif
generally supersedes its influences without forgetting them. In big-picture terms, the band’s sound relies on weaving together intense climaxes with moodier passages, though neither style seems to dominate the other. On a smaller scale, the intricacies of each song give the album a unique character that set it apart from the latest Agalloch or Ash Borer release.
Centerpieces “Jonas” and “Rue d’Auseil” use these stylistic disparities quite differently. The former chugs along during the opening verses while creepy guitar lines float around pounding drums, then bursts into a crescendo behind fill-laden blast beats that carry the song to its bridge. Conversely, “Rue d’Auseil” enters with a haunting cello/guitar duet a la At the Gates’ “…And the World Returned”, before snarled vocals burst in over precisely syncopated drum patterns and a sinister diminished guitar riff. The second half of the song alternates between brooding 4/4 verses and frenetic 6/8 instrumental passages, along with a pair of very well-placed melancholic guitar solos. The songwriting often features atypical patterns and structures, particularly during the band's experimental tangents. “Visions of R’lyeh” is built around terraced dynamics, shifting suddenly as the drumming intensifies and mellows to denote new pieces of the song. Album opener “Al Azif” builds predictably for a few minutes before collapsing into a sparse bridge built on the minor seventh from tonic – a change in mood from foreboding to downright desolate, but one that sets up a cathartic return to the original key. These nuances make each song engaging on its own terms, and keep the album largely fresh and unpredictable.
I am by no means a Cthulhu expert, but the subject seems to be a perfect complement to the music on Al Azif
. Ancient scriptures, gods of destruction, underwater cities – all of those are probably in the lyrics somewhere, though your guess is as good as mine as to what’s actually going on here. It all adds up to a convincing package rife with mystery and intrigue, though the music itself is expertly crafted and well worth your time. If you’re in the market for black metal that is captivating on both a musical and aesthetic level, then you can’t go wrong with The Great Old Ones’ debut album. As Wolves in the Throne Room wind down their career, perhaps this will even be the band to step up and carry the black metal flag. That’s probably a bit bold at this point in the game, but where there's smoke there's fire, and The Great Old Ones' coals are burning brightly.