The truth in the horror that is human nature is that people inflict the most terrible agonies on each other, to say nothing of their blatant contempt for the world in which they live. Heavy metal is a great outlet for the frustrations borne of this realization. Too often, though, metal is merely about contradiction, the individual’s defiant rant against cruel society. Ireland’s Altar of Plagues takes it all a step further, dismissing the hatred with a stoic depiction of Man as a blight on his planet; utter, abject disease bent on the outright destruction of its host. And it is within this conceptualization that we are absolved of the guilt that accompanies self-loathing, for it is the turning of Man’s cancerous advance onto himself that will cauterize the wounds and catalyze the healing. White Tomb captures this duality elegantly as it conveys the essence of death within drifts of vitality. It really is odd that this record is so intrinsically beautiful; odd because White Tomb imparts an amenable warmth even as it ushers in the end of the world; beautiful because Altar of Plagues compose the apocalyptic soundtrack not to the demise of Man, but to the inevitable and necessitous rebirth of our Mother Earth.
The album is presented in two parts, each of which is divided once more into parts roughly ten to fifteen minutes long. “Earth: i) As a Womb” floats in among layers of warm but wary feedback and extended key tones before loosing a barrage of bristling USBM in the style of Weakling and Wolves in the Throne Room. “…As a Womb” presents a poignant dichotomy of impending demise and blissful disregard, as the music is at once comfortable and foreboding, perfectly abstracting our intractable ignorance from its more direct lyrical delivery: Everything is collapsing, can you see it?/ Awareness will come slow, if at all. Companion piece, “Earth: ii) As a Furnace,” follows a similar path, but is far less comfortable, adding mournful, post-metal textures to make clear the notion that this is the inevitable, ruthless descent. The tremolo is slowed some here, creating a less urgent but more certain apocalyptic atmosphere, in which minimalist tones come to dominate for several minutes, building to the act’s denouement: a slow arc of tortured notes drawn across an impossibly barren landscape.
Signaling, finally, the fall of Man, “Through the Collapse: i) Watchers Restrained” launches a relatively direct, mid-tempo BM riff into angular post-metal tones for a brief few moments before it pulls the listener into a morass of twisted, caustic, utterly forlorn funereal black metal borne of the realm of Trees and Khanate. It is truly remarkable, the power of this track to depict absolute dissolution of earthly life, to veritably immerse the listener in viscous death. It is fitting, then, that the album’s final upswing, “Through the Collapse: ii) Gentian Truth,” channels the quietly inspirational Agalloch in proclaiming that, through selfless immolation, our Earth has come full circle to Her set point; She has persevered the plague that is Man to arise anew, pure and strong.
It is really this last bit that speaks to the skill behind the crafting of White Tomb: this is a record that will charge, deplete, and quietly restore the listener that has patience to endure. And, while there isn’t a ton of pure innovation on Altar of Plagues’ first long player, the authentic, raw energy devoted to its creation is undeniable. More than anything, it is the ferocious sincerity of this album that establishes its laudable credentials; it is fantastic. White Tomb is a challenging album that will leave most casual fans of harder music in a stupor and undoubtedly will rouse Top Ten discussions among those with a more refined taste for American style black metal that dares to draw from experimental spheres.