My what now? What the falque is a catafalque?
In case you’ve never written a dissertation on Western religious burial ritual, or if you’re fan of the band and have wondered but just never mustered sufficient shits to find out, a catafalque is a sort of platform built to support the coffin of a body lying in state. As that scenario implies, the structure’s typically ornate design announces tribute to the noteworthy dead (as opposed to normal folk). The symbolism is important to Thy Catafalque’s identity, as its early incarnations reflected the vessel of death, tethered to the dark and foreboding central core of black metal. But also because the project’s evolved self, in shedding most of that blackened husk, reflects the catafalque’s diametric other purpose: to celebrate life. And Thy Catafalque’s (mostly) sole designer, Tamás Kátai, emphasizes that this catafalque is Yours. That’s important, too.
The sound Kátai brings to Thy Catafalque has always swooped through and within existential ideas like death and life and humanity and nature in a spiritual context and there’s every bit of that on Sgùrr. The depth and weight of traditional ideas come through in giant waves of heavily distorted guitar, chugging and tremoloing an intricate rhythmic core, interlocked with relentlessly propulsive programmed drums. The power of that central dynamo lights up the more mysterious aspects of Kátai’s philosophical musings, as a wide array of ethereal sounds reflect a more modern interpretation, industrial and ambient and electronic tones coursing through the core like lightning through a storm cloud. Aside from some spoken word and the operatic closing track, there are no clean vocals on Sgùrr, which is new for Thy Catafalque. In fact, this is a mostly vocal-less record. Instead, instruments are given vocal roles, as in the sweet violin melodies of “Alföldi Kozmosz,” and vocals are given as instruments, as in the primal yips and howls of “Oldódó Formák A Halál Titokzatos Birodalmában,” Sgùrr’s first major peak.
Bands like Thy Catafalque can be a difficult proposition for some listeners both because there’s often so much going on at once and because details can be lost in the rush. A cursory listen can be like watching a rough river flow. From a certain vantage, a river is a river, but a closer look reveals peculiar treasures in the eddies and pools even as the water around them maintains its broader form. Thy Catafalque’s music has a similar feel over the course of six albums, most of it crafted within a consistent framework and instantly recognizable, but reliably unique within that architecture. The wide range of styles intends to capture a full range of emotion in service of the greater atmospheric goal, which is supported by production that captures all aspects fully, cemented by compelling riffs, hooks and melody, and framed by thoughtful structure and composition.
Sgùrr is a Gaelic-derived word for a rocky peak, often surrounded by water, which helps dovetail the album cover with the record’s philosophical exploration. Represented visually by an abstract wash of raked blue sine waves set behind three peaks composed of interlocking triangles, the interdependence of basic elements is important symbolism, reflecting Kátai’s own geological and geographical transitions (he is Hungarian but now resides in Scotland), but also the flows and fluctuations of life experience that run parallel. It doesn’t follow exactly, but the connection between album art and structure is clear in the shared presentation of peaks and valleys, and both reflect the spiritual sojourn.
Time is the obvious analog, but Kátai carries the themes through every aspect of the artistic package, as usual. Songs and their pieces become the journey, signifying wary optimism, Sisyphean ascent, drudging doubt, furious determination, harrowing winds, ascendant hope, hallucinatory distress, metaphysical conquest. Mountains and seas are formidable barriers made navigable by the sheer will of human spirit.
Heavy metal is chock full of heroically persistent artists that have earned more spotlight than they’ll probably ever get. Thy Catafalque is among the most deserving, having laid out a spotless discography of peerless avant-garde metal over more than a decade. With Sgùrr, Tamás Kátai translates another chapter of his life and its attendant questions into amazing music. He’ll share his highs and lows and faith and doubt and we’ll find consistency there with our own. It’s just heavy metal, in the end, but once again, Thy Catafalque makes it feel like Life distilled into a 52 minute epic adventure.