I know that I probably shouldn’t have been surprised, but, goodness me, Atriarch’s latest foray into the blackened musical underworld, the beguiling An Unending Pathway (Relapse) is a very strange record. Strange in a good way, you understand. It’s strange in a disconcerting, haunting and sometimes unnerving way as well, if truth be known. Are you getting the picture yet? Yep, the third album from these curious citizens of Portland, Oregon is all kinds of odd.
Atriarch’s artistic growth gathered pace with their last album The Ritual of Passing (Profound Lore) which was a veritable smorgasbord of musical ideas, breathless interludes and a properly scary undercurrent running throughout. Having moved to Relapse Records, you would not be entirely surprised if the band played things to the gallery and delivered something relatively safe. Proverbial hats off to them then as An Unending Pathway, if anything, packs in more ideas and textures than its predecessor and, despite the often diverse, uncompromising approaches and innovations they have opted for, feels completely cohesive and immersive, In other words, I like it a lot.
Opening track ‘Entropy’ begins proceedings with distinct echoes of Slipknot’s ‘515’, an imagined Hades vomiting up its gnarled and gnarly denizens from their sulphuric lair into our seemingly doomed world. In terms of setting atmosphere and a sense of menace of impending doom, it does it with remarkable aplomb. Dark chants and incantations preface a dark rock track that, vocally, sounds akin to what would happen had The Fall’s Mark E Smith had ever accepted an invitation to join Black Sabbath.
There’s a similarly moody gothic undercurrent to ‘Collapse’ with its tribal drum patterns, evil monk like chanting and slow burn menace. The military two step drumming at the beginning of ‘Revenant’ soon gives way to a black metal influenced noise rock that is bristling with malevolence and tortured anguish – Atriarch’s lot is clearly not a happy one. This deep sense of melancholy reaches its zenith on the brilliant ‘Bereavement’ where the black metal riffing and harrowing screams seem entirely apposite for the song’s subject matter; vocalist Lenny Smith puts in quite an extraordinary stint here where you believe completely in the singer’s pain and anguish.
The efficient balancing act between hard riffing and brooding melody is a key aspect across the whole album and that light and shade delivery keeps you engaged throughout. Whilst the black metal influences are nicely extolled there is no attempt to pummel the listener into submission: although claustrophobic, there is still room to take a breath and for the songs to inveigle their way into your cerebral cortex. This coaxing and coaching of the listener is perhaps best shown on the cacophonous delight that is ‘Rot’; rarely can bodily decomposition sound so appalling yet, in parallel, appealing.
An Unending Path is perhaps best experienced alone, in the dark with candles and lots of red wine. It is a richly textured album, full of strange vignettes, harrowing imagery and not a little guile and cunning. It’s the sort of record that you don’t think you will like, don’t think you’re enjoying when listening to it but you keep coming back to it, time and again, for another glimpse into the darkness that Atriarch have conjured. Like I said, strange: very strange indeed.