Despite being a relative enthusiast when it comes to all things epic in the doom department, I did not give Denmark’s Altar of Oblivion any attention when they released their debut Sinews of Anguish back in 2009. Had I done so, a recent realization would have come three years ago, and Grand Gesture of Defiance would have revealed its true qualities much faster than it has. Said realization was more like a face smack / reminder that patience is indeed a virtue. Altar of Oblivion is one of many great bands that has a bit of a hurdle to jump before a fan can form a true relationship with the music. Such hurdles can be anything from limited drumming to awkward song transitions, but great bands always overcome these weaknesses to deliver their goods.
For Altar of Oblivion, the hurdle in question is right out front. Mik Mentor is the type of vocalist that will be instantly memorable, most likely for the wrong reasons upon first listen, but the weaknesses in his game are neither deal-breakers nor consistent. The most obvious fault is that he is a baritone trying to be a tenor, attempting to stretch his range outside of its natural bounds. It is often when he reaches into a higher register, such as the half-squawk in opener “Where Darkness is Light,” that the cracks can become apparent.
And yet, in spite of these weaknesses, it remains very understandable why the band chooses to stick with Mentor. With the exception of those faulty moments his vocals are far more than merely adequate, and the warm tone of his voice is often what gives life to the melodies. The excellent choruses of “The Graveyard of Broken Dreams” and “Sentenced in Absentia” elevate those tracks, while all of Mentor’s work in closer “Final Perfection” (which includes some high register stuff that oddly works) helps to sustain the haunting sense of finality that the song exudes. Would Altar of Oblivion sound better on record if the vocals were being handled by the likes of a Robert Lowe or Butch Balich? Absolutely. Would it elevate the status of the band to elite? Less clear that answer is. Mentor’s presence as part of a complete group likely helped Grand Gesture of Defiance take on the life and character it has, quirks and all, and the removal of one piece might blur the entire puzzle.
It’s a testament to exactly how refined everything else is about Grand Gesture of Defiance that it doesn’t take long to look past (and even embrace) the vocal quirks. This is excellent doom, folks. Big, fat, lumbering riffs are paired with tasteful, timely soloing (slide work in “The Graveyard of Broken Dreams” is like buttah), and a keen sense of dynamics and song progression. The production and presentation are stripped down, with natural instrumental tones and less intentional atmosphere than much music of this ilk. As a result, this also lacks the theatricality that epic doom sometimes takes on, instead opting to emphasize emotion, with each song progressing towards some sorrowful, wrenching, and often solo-ridden end.
Point is, Altar of Oblivion can flat pen some jams. Even the songs that have one or two questionable vocal lines are highlights, and at only 35 minutes the album is a compact joy for doomthusiasts. This isn’t a case of a band being good in spite of a fault or two, but rather a case of those faults disappearing the more one gets to know this set of great songs. So if you’ve got a hankerin’ for an audio-induced slow headbang, you could do way worse than Grand Gesture of Defiance right about now.