New release promo material is famous for its hyperbole, too often cavalierly throwing up descriptors like “unparalleled indomitable ruthlessly brutal planet-smashing heaviness,” so when Hell’s Headbangers announced that The Royal Arch Blaspheme’s debut had been handed down “from the throne of USBM royalty” and represented “a nexus between elevated-mind primitivism and black-hole oblivion,” one might have been forgiven a brief rolling of the eyes. Turns out, though, that despite the obvious embellishment, there is a semblance of truth in those words. Comprised of vocalist N. Imperial, most notably of Krieg and Twilight, and Profanatica’s John Gelso, who handles all the instruments, The Royal Arch Blaspheme represents a central, if narrow, cross-section of USBM’s seminal second-wave lineage. And that purported nexus is approximated by an intelligent castigation and mockery of religion delivered from atop a monolith of minimalistic barbarism. It’s forty-one-and-a-half minutes of black metal dirty and heavy enough to verge on death metal, belching forth simple, filthy riffs to which ill-disposed drum hits are inexorably tied. Basically, it’s just what one would expect from the architect of Profanatica’s early songs on an album that so clearly states its intended purpose of celebrating the roots of American black metal. Not quite Profanatica Redux, but close. And, despite the loyal adherence to the infernal code, or perhaps because of it, it just isn’t very interesting.
The overall sound is heavy and bleak and imparts a nastiness that festers more than it brutalizes, due in part to guitar tone that, while abrasive, just doesn’t cut. Song structure typically reflects a riff-and-repeat approach that sustains itself with an angry defiance for only brief moments before becoming bored at answering its own hollowing echo. Similarly odd, a critical element clearly missing from that Profanatica sound is Gelso’s supremely violent soloing, the well-placed inclusion of which may have provided some much needed vitality to these songs. An argument could be made that vitality is just what this album doesn’t need; its corrupted carcass crafted from the bilious stuff of Death, unrepentant blasphemy bulging its veins. But even then it remains the heretical horror story you’ve heard before, worthy still of a nostalgic nod to its ideals, but now bereft of its once rousing shock.
The best songs on the album (“Isiah 14:12,” “Lust and Sacrilege,” “Kingdom of Perversions”) purpose all that spiteful sacrilege with subtle but effective doses of sardonic embellishment. Though death-riddled riffing and Imperial’s caustic vocals, each satisfyingly nasty if narrowly defined and predictable, continue to dominate the presentation, the occasional guitar harmony, feedback effects and angelic chorale seep from the background to raise barely defined contrast, as if to underscore the notion that the presence of light by no means guarantees its escape from the black.
Perhaps the album’s greatest strength is its ability to sometimes form from the minimalistic, repetitive approach something of a trancelike feel; a ritualistic spellbinding that lends an insidious authenticity to the anti-religious theme. In this context, the occasional droning, funereal passages come off powerfully and play well against the backdrop of foreboding feedback. At the same time, this quality betrays the album’s most obvious weakness, as it is an album of songs that by its end sound too often too familiar, especially when they revert to stricter Profanatica style.
The Royal Arch Blaspheme heralds all that was glorious in the nascent age of American black metal, but shouts its praises from hoarsened throat and the proclamation is likely to ring hollow for all but the most loyal of subjects, as it offers but symbols of celebrated relics. Royalty, to be sure, but Lords of a decrepit realm somewhere between the exalted days of blackened yore and the merciless resurgence of the Horde.