Funereal Presence - Achatius (2019)
As I alluded to in the forum thread for this release, I had previously attempted to digest Achatius and found it to be a release that I couldn’t quite get my head around upon first attempts to unravel what seemed like a vast and serpentine soundscape. Upon repeated listens however there is a lot more to Achatius that appeals to my current taste in BM than first meets the eye.
A side from bountiful lashings of Darkthrone, with a seasoning of Bathory in those riffs there is the structural integrity of Mortuary Drape to most tracks. Achatius as such plays as a BM record powered by an Italian Prog Rock mentality. The style fits the song content perfectly (it is a story that is being told here after all) yet there is no sacrificing of the raw BM elements that cater for my more extreme tastes.
These song lengths that at first seemed so challenging (the shortest track being just over 11 minutes) are in fact superb chapters of this story made succinct that encourage you to move with the tale as it unfurls. What this does is help focus your attention, I find that I can stop listening after two tracks to digest what has just been presented and then pick up again later in the day the other half and still have that sense of flow to the record.
As well as nods to the classics there are also references to more modern sounds such as Malokarpatan and Master’s Hammer. The traditional/heavy metal credentials stack up well here amongst the other elements. For an album with eclectic artwork, it doesn’t actually come off as sounding the same as the cover art suggests. It is more of a well-balanced affair overall that can still stay true to its BM roots throughout. The blend of genres/styles is quite subtle and as such it is an album that requires much attention to truly get underneath the skin and appreciate the sum of all parts.
There’s chimes and bongs in the background that give an ethereal royalty to proceedings with their echoes drifting long into the ether of the record as it plays. The strength overall of the record though is its balls. To be able to take such an open approach to the delivery of such a strange theme takes guts and for a one-man project to manage to make it such a success is doubly impressive.
Back when the Metal Academy website first went live a few years ago now, I had the opportunity to choose my clans of choice & honestly thought it would be a complete no-brainer. I’ve always been an extreme metal fan first & foremost so the option of allocating myself The Pit, The Horde, The Fallen & The North was an obvious one. But over time I began to realise that my preferences within The North weren’t as broad as they were for the other three clans & I opted to drop back to three clans. High quality black metal still clearly sat amongst the most elite genres for me however the scope of the black metal sound had expanded significantly since the 1990’s & I found that the modern scene included a whole plethora of different variations or sub-subgenres that often offered me very little appeal. Sometimes I’d even find it hard to understand the appeal in an artist that was generally well-regarded by the audience for your more conventional black metal & 2019’s sophomore album from US multi-instrumentalist Funereal Presence is a pretty good example of this.
“Achatius” is made up of four lengthy pieces that all exceed the ten minute mark with lone member Bestial Devotion (also the drummer for fellow US black metallers Negative Plane) producing a package that offers considerable structural variation & always keeps the listener on their toes through consistent changes-ups. The Funereal Presence sound is certainly built on the old-school mentality of classic black metal bands like Darkthrone & Bathory however there’s a greater level of complexity in the use of melody here, at times even bordering on the melodic black metal subgenre. It’s this use of melody that gives Funereal Presence their own unique sound as it often feels a little unusual or avant-garde, despite the fact that there’s nothing all that obscure happening when you examine things closely. The use of non-traditional instruments like church bells also contributes to this & is a noteworthy feature of the album as a whole.
The production job is clear & accessible without ever moving away from the lo-fi black metal aesthetic & I think it does the material justice. It’s interesting that the performances are often pretty dodgy though, particularly the drumming which sounds very much like poor Bestial is pushing himself a little further than his technical limitations should really allow for & the same can be said for some of the guitar work which struggles for timing (check out the clean section in “Wherein Seven Celestial Beasts Are Revealed To Him” for example – yuck!), a flaw that was perhaps accentuated by to the inconsistencies in the drumming. For this reason, I definitely think that “Achatius” had the potential to be more than what we’ve received. The inclusion of some more highly skilled & instrument-specific third parties could have taken this material to another level however you would usually have thought that a one-man band would be very tight given that its conforming to just the one overarching vision. That’s certainly not the case here & I find myself struggling a little bit as a result. Perhaps Bestial Devotion simply found it tough to get his tracks down tightly without the backing of other instrumentalists during the recording of each track? It’s certainly possible from my experience in the studio.
The other thing I struggle with is the more melodic material which I find to not only take me outside of my comfort zone further than I’m comfortable with but also to sound pretty sickly at times. Bestial Devotion’s decision to utilize cow bell at various points across the tracklisting was never a good idea either. I’ve always been a strong detractor of that particular rhythmic instrument’s metal credentials & would actually go so far as to suggest that it should be banned altogether. It probably won’t come as any sort of surprise that the more extreme sections of the album offer me the most appeal though with second track “Wherein A Messenger Of The Devil Appears” being my clear highlight. The other three tracks simply fall short of the mark for me, particularly the two tracks that close out the album which were a clear step down from the A-side.
I don’t think too many black metal fans will have trouble with the vocals which sit comfortably within the safe confines of the genre however they’re also not particularly engaging & don’t really serve as the focal point at any stage in my opinion. If you’re going to buy into “Achatius” then it’s likely for the melodic complexity in the guitar work rather than the extreme nature of the vocals though. The occasional rough-shod yet psychotic Quorthon-esque guitar solo is a nice touch which probably could have been explored a little further although Bestial Devotion’s limited capabilities in this area are probably a large part of the reason for this & that kinda sums up my issues with the album to be honest. I don’t mind a black metal album that’s low on technical skill but caters for it with pure darkness & evil. “Achatius” aims significantly higher than that though & doesn’t stick within its technical limitations which leads to this ol’ metal musician sporting a fair few cringes throughout the 49 minute run time. There’s enjoyment to be had when Funeral Presence keep it simpler & more aggressive but I struggle with his more ambitious moments & this has led to an underwhelming overall impression of the album.
For fans of Negative Plane, Cultes des Ghoules & Darkthrone.
This seems, upon a first listen, to be quite a complex black metal album with it's strange song structures, their stop/start nature, the chants, the disparate array of percussive elements and the keening guitar soloing, but under all this dissonant chaff there is actually a real old-school beast of an album that harkens back to the likes of early Mayhem and Darkthrone with some killer 90's BM riffs (the one in the middle of Wherein a Messenger of the Devil Appears was a real "gotcha" moment for me). The fact that this crazed, schizoid black metal concept album is the product of a single person (Bestial Devotion, drummer of Gainesville's Negative Plane) is amazing, as it sounds far more like it has the kind of dynamic that can only really come from a full band.
The album is comprised of four tracks, each weighing in at a length of eleven to thirteen minutes, that tell the story of Christian martyr St. Achatius, who was tortured and beheaded in Byzantium during the early 4th century for refusing to recant his faith. The busy nature of the tracks, the lo-fi aesthetic and heavy distortion, does invoke an atmosphere that illustrates the relentless nature of the venerable saint's trials at the hands of his torturers, not allowing a moments respite, similar to the modern tales of unrelenting torment meted out in places like Abu-Graibh. The interspersing of the tracks with occasional chants and (more frequent) bell effects suggests the poor Achatius steadfastly clinging to his faith despite this onslaught against his soul from the more dissonant elements.
At first listen I wasn't exactly over-enamoured by this, as it seemed like it was wantonly disjointed and felt like an attempt at some kind of avant-garde black metal collage, but subsequent listens have allowed me to recognise that underneath it is quite a primal black metal record that hasn't actually strayed all that far from the genre's earliest roots. I've bought in to it's jagged, sharp-edged structure and the disconcerting effect it has on the listener, like a painting or picture that is viewed from a weird perspective. The result of all this is a real one-off of an album that I have heard very little to compare with (this of course may be a failing of my own and perhaps there are loads, but I don't think so). Yet another album that proves black metal is still a long way from having run it's course and can still turn out original releases of exceptional, thought-provoking quality.
The Medieval Martyr
What a roller coaster Achatius has been for me this year. It came out in the beginning of the year and absolutely blew me away with its complex but raw structure and its engrossing concept and story. Over the next few months it dropped off my radar as I turned my ear towards the many other massive Black Metal releases this year which included Deathspell Omega, Mgła, the Batushka debacle, Yellow Eyes, and Misþyrming. After months of collecting dust in the back corner of my hard drive, I figured it was time to give Funereal Presence another shot to see how it stacked up considering the competition in Black Metal is pretty fierce this year. To my surprise, Achatius still sounded and felt fresh and gripped me even more than before with its unique riffing style and concept, cementing it as one of the most captivating Black Metal performances I've heard.
Albums that are able to illustrate a lush landscape with a discernible plot without the listener being able to fully understand the lyrics are one of my favorite things to find when wading through all of the new music that comes out each year. Achatius creates a very unique Black Metal experience by using the traditional but sometimes questionable raw, lo-fi production Black Metal fans are all too familiar with, but with melodic, exciting, and fluid tremolo riffs with accompanying church bells and cowbell of all things. Every choice Achatius makes in its composition is harmonious and creates a fully cohesive package that oozes personality and through that personality is able to present a compelling story that fits right into its Black Metal style.
The brief but apparently historically important tale of Achatius is given an appropriate Black Metal revamp as the Christian martyr is led through trials and tribulations to his inevitable demise. The real Achatius, a Greek centurion in the Imperial army, was tortured and beheaded around 303 AD after refusing to renounce his Christian faith, which sounds about right for the basis of a compelling Black Metal album. Although the lyrics are somewhat hazy, Achatius's four songs each paint a vivid picture of a man struggling with his faith in the face of a tortuous death. From the first track it seems that Achatius is already fully aware of his fate as it presents a lyric explaining the vision of three martyred knights as some fairly blatant foreshadowing. From there the album erupts into a chaotic whirlwind of percussion and technical guitar work with church bells and chanting seemingly mocking Achatius and his faith. He is condemned by the Pagan Gods that he denounces and is given no chance at reconciliation, and is taken to his demise in track 4. It took quite a large amount of listens to fully piece together this extremely dense album but now that it has clicked I'm completely hooked.
The complex guitar and percussion work that Funereal Presence manages to pull off creates the most exciting 48 minutes of Black Metal I've heard in a very long time, with no track feeling repetitive or lagging, all while maintaining the overall medieval and religious style of the album and progressing the concepts and story. Traditional Black Metal tremolo riffs are played with fantastic melodies and chord progression that give the entire album a feeling of aggression, chaos, and violence, but not in a brutal or Death Metal kind of way. There is always an interesting riff or melody to latch onto, leaving no sections that seem uninspired or created just to fill time. While the drums can sound a bit flat and shoved behind the other instruments, they create a turbulent foundation that the rest of the production can take advantage of. The drum rhythms are also uniquely technical in a way I've never heard before, with strange cymbal and bass rhythms echoing out during certain verses and chanting sections. The guitar solos and instrumental sections absolutely rip as well, with track 3 having one of the rawest solos in recent memory.
It's obvious that Achatius had a ton of care put into its creation and performance, with it being so dense and original. It takes a solid theme and squeezes out every last drop of creativity possible without straying off its well determined script even once. The religious atmosphere created by the well placed church bells, chanting clean vocals, and lyrics is something I've missed from the Black Metal genre, and Funereal Presence doubles down with an actually compelling concept that transports the listener back to the old-fashioned style of religious persecution by the hands of seven celestial beasts. The technical instrumentation and vocal performance is still exciting and compelling, production issues aside, and manages to create something musically familiar for Black Metal fans while as a whole being something one-of-a-kind. My only hope now is that more bands try their hand at being flogged to the hills of violations, since Funereal Presence are obviously onto something great.