It’s perfectly understandable if fans of Alexander von Meilenwald go into the newest album from The Ruins of Beverast with a bit of trepidation. After all, it has been about eight years since the project released a top notch album in Foulest Semen of a Sheltered Elite, with the years since filled by a decent rarities compilation, a notable letdown of an album in Blood Vaults, and last year’s puzzling Takitum Tootem! EP.
Because the EP was related to fifth full length Exuvia, and because they (kind of) share a song, it was natural to assume that the directionless, tribally whateverness of “Takitum Tootem! (Wardance)” was a hint at Meilenwald’s latest direction. Blood Vaults itself had lowered the pure black metal of the project, moving even farther into doom terrain while cleaning up the production quite a bit, but the main part of the EP was not only a massive left turn, but just a big swing-and-miss.
Exuvia, however, does not sound like “Takitum Tootem! (Wardance),” and neither does it sound exactly like any of the previous four Beverast full lengths. Rather, as is typical of the project, it provides a twist on Meilenwald’s central black/doom sound, actually coming damn close to funeral doom at times, and adding in more “extra” elements than ever before. Most importantly, it recaptures the project’s greatness, and not just because it provides a better set of songs than that which makes up Blood Vaults (although that’s certainly a big plus).
Unlike past albums, you wouldn’t necessarily recommend Exuvia because it is a “grand expanse of sprawling black metal” or that it “unlocks achievements in the grand game of kvltitude” or something equally silly. Sure, it continues that undeniable undergroundness, but the success here, more so than on any past Beverast album, comes from Meilenwald leaning as much on vibe as on the songs. This record sits in that great space between zoning out and gripping enchantment, leaving it to the listener how it should be digested. If you want to take in the opening title track with all attention antennae raised, then you’ll follow along to the monolithic doom riffs, dynamic drumming, chilling solos, and variety of vocals (growls, screams, female wails, Meilenwald’s continually improving cleans). Relaxing and reading a book? It will be the masterful use of ambience, eerie empty spaces, and one relentless arpeggio that permeates nearly the entire song lulling you into vast landscapes.
I say “landscapes” here not for convenient metaphorical effect, but because one of the album’s most notable traits is how the rhythm guitars so often feel like the absolute foundation of everything else, as if they are themselves the changing land over which the rest of Meilenwald’s layers are placed. Beverast was never really known for thrash-levels of rhythm guitar activity, but here they are even more of a grounded force. This not only helps to elevate the moments when the riffs get a bit more neck-wrecky (album centerpiece “The Pythia’s Pale Wolves” has a couple massive passages), but also ensures that all of the lushness and layers always have that bedrock. Except, of course, at key moments when starkness reigns supreme.
And hooboy are there layers. Like the opening title track, much of Exuvia eases the listener in with minimalism, but eventually adds layer upon layer and sound upon sound. Towering doom riffs, scorching tremolo parts, several vocal approaches, ambient sounds, synths, samples, bagpipes, industrial percussion, and Meilenwald’s drumming talents. The basic song structures of Exuvia are often so simple that the variety of extra sounds could easily give way to gimmickry, but they instead reveal a songwriter that is only beginning to become comfortable in ditching his comfort. These are not drastic shifts, mind you, just perfectly calculated extra touches that enhance the already deeply dynamic songs, and anchor the listener’s addiction to the music. Sometimes everything is unloaded in a climactic barrage, and at other times, layers come in and out, working to hypnotic effect. The main point is that there is nary a misstep within these 68 minutes.
Was the EP merely a diversion? A classic misdirection meant to make Exuvia’s sounds even more unpredictable? Perhaps, because the album edition of “Takitum Tootem!” (the “Trance” version) is far superior to that on the EP, expressing an exhaustion and desperation that is a fitting closer after the album’s more pummelling moments. The EP, like much of Blood Vaults, was likely just a misstep, nothing more. The main point is that Meilenwald is back in top form on Exuvia. Top form, and seemingly feeling more adventurous than your usual Kvlt Underground Darling.
When The Ruins of Beverast is at its best, the project produces albums that take you to unique states of mind and visual places. Rain Upon the Impure created images of vast lands torn asunder by war and catastrophe, independent of the rules of time, and unreachable to the listener, a quality enhanced by the distant production. Foulest Semen was much more direct, communicating events and places that are tactile, and as a result potentially very threatening and dominating.
Exuvia, by contrast, does not feel threatening, and it does not create images of some cataclysm or sense of loss. Rather, the feeling here is of enchantment and magic, as absolutely corny and hokey as that may sound. The land to which you are transported is alien and otherworldly, to be sure, but wonders are afoot, and giving into the sounds creates that sense of wonder. Make no mistake, this is still dark, dark music, but it is a welcoming darkness. The Ruins of Beverast has never been farther from “pure” black metal, but the music, in so many ways, has never sounded more symbolically black. Close your eyes and embrace the rich, detailed blankness.