Originally written by K. Scott Ross.
One of the old standbys for heavy metal discussion is whether or not lyrics matter. Does listening to Marduk make you some sort of Third Reich sympathizer? Should it? What about Stryper? Are we giving glory to the wrong team by listening to their music? These discussions aren’t an issue of vocals, it’s specifically about the content of lyrics. But while such debates are likely to continue on for as long as angry people scream about Satan over the sound of distorted guitars, there is a particular musical genre where people never debate the value of lyrics: bardic performance. The whole point of such performances is to relate a story; the musical accompaniment, if done well, serves to heighten your experience of that story, but is far from the forefront.
Sky Shadow Obelisk, a project of Rhode Island multi-talented madman Peter Scartabello, has just released such a work. Beacon may appear at first to be a heavy metal album. Perhaps one could call it doom metal, and it’s certainly progressive. But it’s not, actually. Instead, it’s a bardic performance of a specific story: a Lovecraftian tale of Nyarlathotep, a wizard, and some creepy bells. This critic believes that if you approach Beacon with the right mindset, you will have a memorable (although not necessarily pleasant) experience. Try to think of it in the framework of other progressive doom music, though, and you’re likely to just be disappointed.
As with any story, it’s important to start at the beginning and make your way linearly towards the end. The album opens with a feeling of “prologue” as Scartabello tells us of a young man who has arrived at the tower of a powerful wizard to study the ancient binding spells of the black arts. Immediately you’ll notice some bizarre elements. It sounds out of tune. It sounds out of time. It sounds rather wretched, in fact. Depending on how you react to music, it might actually make you physically uncomfortable.
All of this is intentional. If this were a normal album of music, I would turn it off in disgust and fling it across the room to hopefully smash into a number of itty bitty pieces and never be heard again (I’m one of the ones who reacts with physical discomfort, if you couldn’t tell). This is why understanding Beacon as a specific kind of art is so important. Scartabello uses microtones and poly-rhythms to convey the feeling of unease and wrongness that Lovecraft and his peers associated with the ancient powers. This isn’t your typical Dimmu Borgir “I hold the keys” self-empowering magic. In this world, magic is horror, gods are horror, life is horror.
The third song “Scepter of the Black Sun,” feels a bit more like a typical metal song. There’s riffing and growling and drumming (perhaps a little reminiscent of Confessor), and it’s actually rather groovy and catchy. Unfortunately, it makes it a bit more difficult to follow the details of the story, at least without a lyric sheet. Thankfully, the tone of the narrative is strong. Each time the music changes, imagine that you’ve reached a new chapter. Listen to the story and see how it fits (or maybe doesn’t seem to fit) with the music. Peter Scartabello is a talented bard; the music supports the story at all times.
“The Polymorophic Bell of the Messenger” is the strangest piece of music on its face, as notes slide up and down in yowling cacophony and off-key bells chime dolefully while a vocorded voice tells us of things swiftly going downhill. The use of microtones is most apparent on this track, so be forewarned. All this was done to bring you the disquiet one would feel in the presence of one of the Great Old Ones. Finally the story wraps up with “Velus Temporum,” the most funereal track on the album. Because funeral doom is already so obsessed with Lovecraftian horrors, this track also feels a bit “normal.” Only a bit, though. The song appears to be nineteen minutes long, but there’s actually a six and a half minute silence in the middle of the track. Even this is intentional, I’m convinced. How could it not be, after everything that has come before it?
Beacon makes me glad that we don’t give scores to albums here at Last Rites. I don’t think it could possibly be assigned a fair one. Did I like the album? No. It was ugly, it was bizarre, it made me feel ill. But I was absolutely fascinated by it, and I respect it as the artwork that it is. Will I end up listening to it again? Most likely. It’s such an amazing embodiment of the Lovecraftian aesthetic that I cannot call myself a fan and not experience it again. If you are any kind of fan of the Lovecraft Mythos, you absolutely need to experience Beacon. For others, I would recommend it to those who are looking for a challenging listen, and those who appreciate a fully-formed piece of concept art. But if you’re just intrigued by the genre tags, I would be very careful. Beacon isn’t what you might expect.