In my years of metal fandom I’ve heard my share of genre mish-mashes, but stoner-doom-death is a new one for me. Finland’s Altar of Betelgeuze has apparently been practicing the style since 2010, and Among the Ruins is, in fact, the band’s second full-length and third overall release. Despite being unfamiliar with the band, the stoner-doom-death description did generate some expectations as to how this album would sound, and, in many ways, for better and for worse, Among the Ruins met those expectations, but there were also instances where the album managed to surprise me.
The album gets underway with “The Offering” which opens with some fuzzy Sleep-like riffing that gives way to a more mournful and melodic themes reminiscent of Candlemass. The vocals are initially delivered in an odd spoken word sort of chant, but are soon swapped for some properly fearsome death growls, via bassist Matias Nastolin, who also lends his talents to Finish death metal group Decaying. The vocal shift coincides with a musical shift to somewhat more aggressive but not overly dynamic riffing. Essentially, the song checks off all the boxes: stoner bits, doom bits and death bits, and it all comes together fairly well, but it’s not exactly scintillating.
Track two, “Sledge of Stones,” starts off in similar fashion to its predecessor with another lazy groove, but then comes the “Holy shit, is that Chris Cornell?” moment. It is not, in fact, Chris Cornell, but rather guitarist Olli “Otu” Suurmunne (another Decaying alumnus), who handles the clean vocals. And, Otu has a hell of a set of pipes, a strong and soulful voice that takes this song in a far more tuneful direction than I was expecting, something akin to Pale Divine, albeit slower and heavier.
The rest of the tracks on Among the Ruins mix the sundry ingredients of Altar of Betelgeuze’s sound in varying proportions. In some tracks, like “New Dawn,” Suurmunne’s clean vocals get the lion’s share of the work on other’s such as “Absence of Light” Nastolin’s growls dominate, and on others still, the clean and death vocals take are on roughly equal footing. Musically, the tracks are a bit more homogenous in that the differences between stoner doom and traditional doom are subtle, and so the transitions between styles are almost seamless when compared to the glaring differences in the band’s two vocal styles.
What really ties all the album’s tracks together is the band’s flair for melody. Otu’s vocals are obviously a prime mover in this regard; his voice cuts through the murk like a beacon, and he can always be counted on for a hook. Melody abounds in more understated ways as well, be it through clean guitar intros, the occasional solo or woven into the fabric of the heavy riffs.
Where Among the Ruins falters is in the aggression department. The album is heavy, make no mistake, but too many of the riffs seem to drift rather lazily from chord to chord. I realize that is a hallmark of stoner metal, but that’s why most stoner metal sucks. When the album leans more heavily toward doom-death, things definitely get more menacing, but it’s mostly bark and not much bite. The band is fundamentally lacking a commitment to musical violence. Certainly, I don’t expect blast beats, or anything of the sort, but some bolder, sharper and more memorable riffs would go a long way toward livening up a long and uniformly slow album.
In the end, Among the Ruins is most notable for the potential it displays. Otu Suurmunne’s voice is a force of nature that demands to be harnessed more effectively. If Altar of Betelgeuze could get the lead out occasionally, and/or put a little more death in its metal, the band could go places. For now, Altar of Betelgeuze does some interesting things, but not quite enough of them to lift Among the Ruins to greatness.