Originally written by Rae Amitay
Hailing from Ireland, Altar of Plagues has been garnering credibility for their haunting hybrid of black metal & post-rock since 2006. Their reputation as dark and captivating masters of atmosphere was solidified after the release of their first full-length studio album, White Tomb, in 2009. The score to a bleak, post-apocalyptic world, White Tomb is a brilliantly crafted, dynamic, and devastating debut album that proves a tough act to follow with their most recent release, Mammal.
The group rises to the challenge of creating an impressive sophomore offering, although they’ve not managed to fully escape the shadow of their phenomenal first album. Like its predecessor, Mammal consists of four lengthy tracks of solid and compositionally complex material, but seemingly lacks a bit of the spirit that made White Tomb so destructively beautiful. The production also comes off as a slightly commercial attempt at the signature “lo-fi” black metal mix, whereas their grittier approach on previous releases sounded more deliberate and effective. Nevertheless, it’s a dense and powerful album that proves Altar of Plagues is a multifaceted group of musicians with a wealth of talent and ability.
While the band receives comparisons to Wolves in the Throne Room on a regular basis, their sound is also highly reminiscent of post-rock legends ISIS. “Feather and Bone”, the second and arguably strongest track off the album, incorporates slow-burning and echoing intensity with churning riffs and tortured, distant vocals. Twelve minutes of visceral blast beats combine with gently evolving and reverberating atmospheric sections, while the drumming also reaches a new level of rhythmic intricacy.
Unfortunately, Mammal loses momentum with the third track, “When the Sun Drowns in the Ocean”. The intro is a clear nod to their Irish heritage, and consists of an old Irish funerary custom called “keening”. The lamenting and sorrowful female vocal performance is effective at first, but drags on about a minute too long and loses influence over the listener. While it’s the shortest track on the album, it passes by slowly, and seems to lack the emotional depth and development of the rest of Mammal.
Full of dynamic buildup and beautifully written sections, Mammal is an excellent second release that builds upon Altar of Plagues’ established signature sound, and it shows a great deal of maturity and growth. Although it inevitably fails to live up to its predecessor, Mammal delivers both delicate and bombastic moments. Ending on a buzzing and ambient outro instead of a dramatic and final note, the conclusion seems fitting, albeit a bit aurally disappointing.