There are times I wish I had been able to see and experience the development of metal in the 80's firsthand. Being able to follow the genesis and growth of the nascent sound as it started splintering off into the subsets we know today would have been the best of all worlds. To be able to hear everything, but have it still be closely enough rooted to the traditions that started everything is something I admit with sorrow I can never quite understand. Instead, this is a time in metal where the extreme has won out in many senses, and what was once the crowning glory of heavy metal is now sneered at and derided as not being 'pure' enough for today's hardcore listeners. It's a sad state of affairs, once I am powerless to combat, and something that needs to be rectified if heavy metal is ever going to reclaim the stature it once held.
That's quite the lofty target to shoot for, and Altar Of Oblivion isn't going to rewrite the rules of the game, but it is an album that flashes a glimmer of hope to people like me who have become jaded by the constant need for more speed and brutality. What “Grand Gesture Of Defiance” is has nothing to do with the modern, it's a throwback to the first days of extreme metal, when bands like Mercyful Fate were still considered black metal, and still scared the daylights out of people who didn't understand what heavy metal was all about.
That's not to say that Altar Of Oblivion follows in Mercyful Fate's footsteps, but there are hints of that sound to be found throughout the album, both in the winding song structures and sharp riffing. In terms of guitars, the album is a perfect blend of classic Mercyful Fate and Candlemass, mixing together the classically tinged and the oppressively dramatic. There are elements of traditional heavy metal and doom, which come together in a batch of songs that exist in a world where bands could be heavy and still write great melodies. It may be a bit anachronistic for many, but it's a reminder of a better time to be a metal fan, when a metal fan could still be a fan of music in general.
“Where Darkness Is Light” kicks off the album in grand style, throwing all those elements into the pot, and coming up with a gem of a song. The riffs are simple enough to be memorable without sacrificing heaviness, the doom elements shift the tempos just enough to keep the song progressing at every turn, and the vocal performance, while not as polished as what we've become accustomed to, is theatrical, dramatic, and loaded with a fantastic chorus melody. It's a grab-bag of metal tricks, but crafted in such a way that it feels coherent as one work, and not a hodgepodge of disparate and unrelated pieces.
It's an impressive start to the album, but only the beginning. “The Graveyard Of Broken Dreams” ups the ante, delivering an even better song in every way. The riffs draw more heavily on the classics, perfectly utilizing the vintage tone, while the chorus comes out of nowhere like a sledgehammer, pounding the melody into your head until it's embedded in the base of your skull. It's not exactly what you would expect from traditional heavy metal, but it's everything you could want. It's not a stretch to say this is music that could have made an impact on the radio twenty-five years ago, which is a sad statement about the current climate.
The doom elements come into full focus on “In The Shadow Of The Gallows”, a slow-burn that turns into a metal hymn by the time it's over. While less immediately catchy as the previous tracks, it is no less effective, and over time develops as strong a connection as any other. It is a classic case of a 'grower' song, one that deserves the bit of effort needed to unlock its potential. The album continues on in this slower pace, both in the short instrumental “The Smoke-Filled Room”, as well as through the final two songs. “Sentenced In Absentia” may be the weakest link, but is far from a bad song, while the closer “Final Perfection” is as much of a sweeping epic as six minutes can contain, ending the album on as strong a note as it began on. Book-ending the record with such strong material is a wise move, and guarantees return listens.
The one knock on the album is its short running time, coming in at a concise thirty-five minutes. While more music would have been welcome, and the album does feel a bit short at times, there's not much reason to complain. Half an hour of material this strong is better than a longer album that fills in the gaps with lesser songs. And if anything, it makes you more anxious to put the record on and listen again and again. The replay value is extremely high, and over time becomes a bit like a drug you don't want to wean yourself off of. Taking a hit is gratifying, easy, and always a welcome feeling.
It would be foolish to say that “Grand Gesture Of Defiance” is a modern classic, because almost nothing these days can carry the burden of those words. The reverence of time doesn't allow current works to rise to the level of deification we have assigned to records that may or may not deserve it, but I can say that “Grand Gesture Of Defiance” is as good a metal record as I've heard this year, and it's one that in a better world would be recognized for its greatness.