Summon a forest in your mind. Walk in that forest for a long time, and feel the warmth. It’s a cold kind of warmth, the kind that never seems to rise up much past the knees. Navigate a strata of fallen leaves, an age-dampened palimpsest that marks your passage but waits quietly for the first ash grey sky of November and its silent snowfall that will occlude your only history here.
You’re not alone, exactly. Everything around you is present – the earth gives just enough beneath your step to acknowledge that you are there, but not so much as to make you think you matter; each tree is a solemn monument to some unknowable past, and all the more reminder of your own remarkable insignificance. Your concept of worldly memory is a vain illusion. Impermanence is nature’s equilibrium.
New Jersey’s Evoken has lived in this forest throughout its existence. Despite a career of absurdly high caliber, one which already features several classics in the realm of funeral doom / death metal (2001’s Quietus and 2005’s Antithesis of Light, to these ears), Atra Mors consolidates all of Evoken’s many considerable strengths: the density of collapsing stars, eerily soothing ambient meditations that quiver like a stone skipped across a pond of mercury, rage transmuted into despondence and back again, and passages of frankly astonishing beauty. Atra Mors is the band’s finest album and a truly stunning accomplishment.
Listening to the titanic gloom that suffuses every inch of Atra Mors, it’s almost difficult to envision the members of Evoken as actual humans. I mean, I’m sure these dudes go to the grocery store and cuss at traffic and laugh while drinking beers just like the rest of us, yet despite the colossal craft surely required to write songs this good, this confident and patient and wise; despite the impossibility of denying that this is the work of many human hands, scratching at strings and scribbling on pads and making a racket in practice spaces, Atra Mors feels for all the world like a spectral emanation. An indivisible exhalation of a tired landscape; a mountain spring freezing, artery by artery; a grimly defiant march of an endangered species toward shelter that does not exist.
In fact, all of this is telegraphed in the tectonic power of Vince Verkay’s bass drum. Let’s take a minute and talk about that bass drum, shall we? Bass drums end up as the butt end of many a complaint about production in our beloved heavy metal, from frustratingly monotonous triggered kicks to ultra-synthetic click-mageddon to hugely over-reverbed booooooms. The album-opening title track makes your ears wait all the way until 3:13 or so before unleashing that true thundercrack of doom, but once those massive kicks enter the fray, there’s simply no way around it: there are bass drums, and then there are fucking bass drums, friends. The sharp yet resonant thrum of Verkay’s kicks feeds the huge ever-growing pulsating brain that rules from the centre of the underworld (in case you’re feeling Orb-ital). It’s a sound that doesn’t just get under your skin; it becomes your heartbeat. Entire woodland cults form for the sole purpose of gathering on the solstice to dance beneath charcoal-scrawled figures bending in their own fitful dance, carrying between them a massive timpani formed from antlers and desiccated animal flesh. An asteroid crashes into the Himalayas and a choking mantle of grit and ash blots the sun, over and over and over as Earth is thrown into a temporal causality loop, greeting its doom unknowingly every new day with the beating beating beating beating of that drum.
As always with Evoken, the balance between beauty and brute force is masterful, and a fair few new sounds make themselves known over the course of these sixty-seven minutes. Some of the album’s strongest material is crammed into the first two tracks. “Atra Mors” makes surprising use of some Vangelis / Tangerine Dream keyboards to neatly accentuate the swirling, suspended dread, and the slithering, grimy riffing that intrudes at 5:45 or so could be Portal or Deathspell Omega played at half-speed. While there’s nothing quite aggressive enough to match the destructive shock of the blastbeats found on Antithesis of Light’s “In Solitary Ruin,” “Descent into Chaotic Dream” trots out some increasingly forceful drumming into its latter half, trading off hateful gallops with more restrained sections featuring a cello sawing fifths over monastically devoted chord progressions.
But the real proof – if any was needed at this point – that Evoken operates in a realm completely unto itself comes with the final two minutes of “Descent into Chaotic Dream.” The pace reverts to a crawl, the rhythm instruments crunch a dirge in unison, and a simple, unadorned guitar lead reaches skyward with heart-rending clarity. So rapturously beautiful are these few minutes that they render any and all doubts of Evoken’s complete doom dominance petty and superfluous. The band also knows they don’t need to milk it, so the coda simply gets in, reduces the listener’s emotional state to a blubbering wreck, and then fades back into whatever fertile madness birthed it.
The muted, faltering piano interlude of “A Tenebrous Vision” again clears the ground for further exercises in pure density rent by diaphanous ripples of light and melody. “Grim Eloquence” experiments with nicely understated burbling effects, and then sets the reedy melancholy of the cello against glistening synths. The song again demonstrates that Evoken has got the “remarkably pretty and remarkably despondent coda” thing down to a strict science. But more importantly, this song (and each of the album’s six main compositions) travels, instead of just moving. By the time a song reaches its conclusion, a conclusion which, although not always predictable, feels ultimately necessary and inevitable, the listener has the unmistakable sense that she has been carried somewhere, changed somehow; whether crucible-purified or despair-crushed, none can really tell but time, that final revelator.
The remainder of the album passes by in similarly miserable and miraculous fashion, with highlights including the heavily-reverbed cello that opens “Into Aphotic Devastation” by introducing the principal guitar riff and “The Unechoing Dread,” which works itself up into a lead-coated Celtic Frost half-gallop, and then breaks around the six-minute mark to revel in Dave Wagner’s simply disgusting bass tone. In fact, Wagner’s ridiculous bass work really asserts itself on the album’s final two songs, prompting a backward-glancing reevaluation of the entire work: Has there really been such buzzing, satisfying filth mingling with these periodic moments of joyfully apocalyptic loveliness all along?
There is likely no cosmic secret at work that allows Evoken to wrench maximum impact out of the relatively stable signposts of this style of heavy metal. Atra Mors is, as noted, the work of hands. But with these riffs that raise mountains out of the deepest ocean crevasses; with these withering howls that fashion caverns out of thin air simply to have someplace new to echo through; with these rivers of noise and melody and sweetness that flow in defense of their very being beneath a stern barrier of glacial ice; and with these drums that mark pitilessly the passage of a time that never belonged to you or them or anyone else, Evoken has created something almost infinitely surpassing. An immaculate conception, summoned from nothing, and for nothing other than that simplest plaint: “We who will not always be here have made our own noise and sent it out into the void of silence and vastness, the great destroyers. Hail impermanence; to hell with impermanence.”
Go. Listen. Bring forth your own noise; from nothing, for nothing.