Akercocke - Renaissance in Extremis
It doesn’t feel right to call Renaissance in Extremis a comeback record. It’s been a decade since we last heard from Akercocke on 2007’s Antichrist, a relatively experimental entry in their discography that saw them beginning to pivot away from blackened death metal and seek inspiration in post-punk and goth rock. On hiatus ever since, several members moved on to Voices, a different beast altogether, and hope for news of new Akercocke dwindled - but lo and behold, they have returned with an album that sounds as much like a logical follow-up Antichrist as a clean break from the band that wrote it, thanks to one very specific change.
Akercocke’s gimmick was sex and Satan, if that wasn’t clear from a glance at Antichrist or any of their previous albums. Out of a list that includes Rape of the Bastard Nazarene, Goat of Mendes, Choronzon, and Words That Go Unspoken, Deeds That Go Undone, three have explicitly blasphemous names and four prominently feature female nudity in their cover artwork. This may paint a particular image of the band, but I guarantee that they are not who you think, as Akercocke were known to perform in full three-piece suits and affect a posh, intellectual demeanor for interviews, as you can see for yourself in this clip of members bearing through a guest spot on the highly-Christian Irish BBC TV. The same is true for the band’s music: while their first two offerings are frightening and brutal, their interjections of doom and gothic melody eventually guided Akercocke to their first renaissance on Words That Go Unspoken. Words garnered comparisons to Enslaved’s progressive black metal, the sexual overtones of their sound finding their fullest expression in its seductive clean textures even as their trademark Satanism came through loud and clear in a finely-tuned blend of Morbid Angel, mid-period Emperor, and Slayer.
Renaissance in Extremis trades that all away. As familiar as the record feels, the ten years between it and Antichrist clearly wrought some changes in the personal lives of members; and while no one in the band has converted to Christianity, the lyrical subject matter has gone fully secular, favoring meditations on loss and grief over “Saliva on soft thighs / Outstretched wings / Semen across lips / Hooves steeped in blood.” Detours into dark, electronica-tinged rock that informed songs like Antichrist’s “Dark Inside” have been legitimized as part of the Akercocke sound, no longer just stylistic diversions, but meaningful expansions of the band’s sonic and emotional palette. Coupled with a stronger predilection than ever toward extended, virtuosic instrumental passages that never forsake structure for wank, Renaissance in Extremis lives up to its title with a presentation that is as 70s-prog as it is modern blackened death metal without feeling retro or contrived, a concoction that’s one part Opeth, one part Behemoth, and all Akercocke.
We are introduced to this new blend, so much like the old but so much richer, with an unapologetic seven-minute tour de force in “Disappear.” Its shifts from death metal to prog and back are handled with the creative deftness of Blackwater Park, its constituent genres so entangled by song’s end that it’s impossible to say for sure what Akercocke are playing by the time “Unbound By Sin” returns things to slightly more familiar blackened territory. So it is for virtually every track on Renaissance, and so it is that every lick, every beat, and every masterful tonal adjustment becomes metallic bliss. There’s no telling what they’ll do next. While I’m not fond of the phrase, I have to say that it sounds as if not a single note is out of place (instrumentally, anyway), nor do any of the record’s experimental tangents feel forced or uncharacteristic. Previously, the big sticking point with Akercocke was Jason Mendonca’s singing, and I’m afraid that for listeners that had a problem before, Renaissance will not do much to address those issues. He still wavers on pitch and occasionally seems to run out of air before the verse is through, and that wild shriek that could be trusted to knife through the mix only makes cameo appearances now. Otherwise, his extreme vocals remain undeniably brutal, although both his deep gurgles and violent rasps are occasionally miscalculated. Akercocke aren’t as heavy as they think, but it’s a forgivable trespass given the quality throughout.
Renaissance’s virtues get another boost from the best production job they’ve ever had, free of the grime of the first few records and the dynamic flatness of the last two: everything is in its right place, with Mendonca firmly centered against a pair of well-balanced guitars and a robust rhythm section that sees long-time drummer David Gray contributing his most engrossing performance yet. Having proven himself a terrifying machine on Goat of Mendes and a more varied percussionist on Words That Go Unspoken than anyone suspected, he fills Renaissance with inventive fills and beats that never distract from Mendonca and Wilcock’s dual-guitar pyrotechnics, having the good sense to simply ride a beat out when they take off into some of the best solos I’ve heard this year. I never thought I’d describe anything other than Akercocke’s suits as “tasteful,” but their fretwork is light-years more sophisticated than what they were playing before, expertly navigating tech-metal territory to make the fullest use of their guitars possible without becoming masturbatory. They even make acoustic transitions sound fresh, something I thought Opeth had long ago played into cliche. By the time of “A Particularly Cold September,” possibly the best song they’ve ever composed, Akercocke seem to have exhausted their skills, but also to have done everything necessary to write one of the most thrilling reinventions in recent memory.
And that’s really what it is. Renaissance in Extremis remains true to Akercocke’s core sound as it references the aesthetics and techniques of early records, but it's built on a more demanding songcraft than ever before, disregarding the rules just enough to reinforce them. Comeback records just too often become about trying to worm back into a headspace that’s no longer accessible for various reasons--time and age, experience and stability are all factors, especially for musicians in a genre as emotionally involved as black metal and as technically demanding as death metal. It’s rarely the sort of music that older musicians can or want to return to after they leave it. But Akercocke seem to have made peace with these facts. They’ve left behind Satan and taken inspiration from more banal evils, and therefore more relatable ones, widening their appeal and perhaps imbuing their music with more personal meaning. This is not the Akercocke of old, but Renaissance in Extremis is, without question, their best record and a strong contender for the best of the year.
Not bad for a band still named “Goat penis.”