Album: Renaissance in Extremis
Record Label: Peaceville
Release date: 25 August 2017
2. Unbound by Sin
4. First to Leave the Funeral
5. Familiar Ghosts
7. One Chapter Closing For Another to Begin
8. Inner Sanctum
9. A Particularly Cold Sept
I have tried, but as much as I’d like to put this album on in the background and carry on with my daily grind, Renaissance In Extremis is just too confrontational, too demanding and too immediate in its unforgiving ferocity to do so. This much-anticipated return after a decade-long hiatus for Akercocke, England’s most presentable extreme metal outfit, drags you in with its labyrinthine twists and progressive complexities.
The all-out assault, variety and intensity that is Akercocke calls to mind another British band that refuse to be pigeonholed, Anaal Nathrakh . However, while Nathrakh stick to their predominantly misanthropic themes, Akercocke have moved on from their primary focus of sex, death and Satan towards an introspective lyricism that teeters between goth balladeering (‘First to Leave the Funeral’) and paeans to gnosis and the elevation of self (‘Unbound by Sin’). All these thoroughly intellectual motifs are delivered with the exceptional vocal skill and range of Jason Mendonca: fans will be glad to know that time has not mellowed his abilities one iota. From whispered statements to sweeping clean vocals that come as a balm on top of his guttural growls, his register changes are fast and, indeed, furious. No matter how soothing the initial reaction is to the clean passages, their undeniable menace swiftly colours the ensemble in far darker tones.
The shifts in the music mirror those of the vocals, offering a listener pauses for breath before each fresh attack: the overall effect may be one of blackened death, but the progressive element is always present. While far less experimental than prior releases – gone are the electronic stabs of Goat of Mendes or the alternative instrumentation on Choronzon – it is still a hugely varied, jazzlike affair: David Gray’s virtuoso percussive performance underscores this with rolling, fluctuating grooves that emphasise, counterpoint and reinforce as the melodies dictate. The result is a gentle (even where blastbeats are concerned) rhythm section that deepens the dynamic nature of Renaissance in Extremis. The most accessible number on the album (and my personal favourite), ‘Insentience’ marries all these elements beautifully; all centred on a simple, ringing guitar melody with some delightful harmonics, at a tempo that seems uncharacteristically slow for Akercocke. By contrast, some of the riffing on ‘Unbound by Sin’ is straight from the speedy Slayer school of thought – as are some of the vocal parts on ‘Familiar Ghosts’.
Other comparisons that can be drawn include the obvious Pink Floyd and Rush influences that have suffused Akercocke’s music since début Rape of the Bastard Nazarene. A touch of Black Sabbath guitar complements this on ‘A Particularly Cold Sept’, which goes on to further heighten the progressive nature with the introduction of a brass section to the arrangement. There are also some Emperor-esque  trills, sweeps and arpeggios scattered throughout the album, as well as shrieks that nearly rival Cradle of Filth (see the closing verses of ‘One Chapter Closing For Another To Begin’).
The result is one that will satisfy existing fans, while the more straightforward approach (a far cry from the Words That Go Unspoken, Deeds That Go Undone album) to Renaissance in Extremis will generate fresh appeal among most extreme metal audiences. The intellectual nature of the record, which could be a turnoff for straight-up death metal aficionados, is overshadowed by its threatening stance, making for a genre-defying album that combines the blackness of Hecate Enthroned with Nile’s death technicality and the boundary-pushing expressiveness of Opeth.
In summation, the only drawback to Renaissance in Extremis is the same quibble I have with Akercocke’s whole back catalogue; when the music shifts towards death, it’s all about the brutal. When it slides to the progressive end, it’s one hundred per cent avant-garde. These massive fluctuations in tone make for great dynamism, but don’t leave much room for the bleakness many expect in this music: factor in the less obviously ‘evil’ themes on this album and you’re left with something that isn’t really black metal anymore. Previous records made up for this in their sinister, often Satanic imagery, but Akercocke are more goth than black on this outing. For the most part Renaissance in Extremis is its own beast – a wholly original creative outpouring that typifies Akercocke’s eccentric, raging bombast.
1. Another notable similarity would be the NWOBHM influence that comes to the fore on Anaal Nathrakh’s most recent outing, The Whole of the Law [review here], can also be felt on Renaissance in Extremis to a greater degree than on previous Akercocke albums – especially on the vocals of ‘Familiar Ghosts’.
2. The immediate similarity drawn is with ‘The Loss and Curse of Reverence’ off the Anthems to the Welkin at Dusk album – Ihsahn’s playthrough (https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=WbPcF7dFS34) highlights this great use of high-end fills over a low-end riff.