When one thinks of “black/thrash” metal, one typically thinks of bands such as Aura Noir and Deströyer 666. Both are staunch defenders of the style’s classic sound, which is not something typically said about Absu. While the above bands are basically a more violent, sharper-produced take on early Bathory, Absu refuses to be pigeonholed by the rules of any single scene. Their songs contain more than the typical flutter-trill-thrash-speed riff approach, and are often embellished through theatrical elements; lyrics eschew typical Satanism and edgelord nonsense and instead opt for a completely out there take on ancient mythology and occultism; and vocals are delivered with a level of charisma rarely heard in extreme metal, not to mention some rather unorthodox, impossible-to-duplicate rhythms.
But beyond the specific musical aspects that warp Absu from black/thrash into their true “mythological occult metal” is their undeniable personality, and that largely comes from one man.
Absu is that rarest of bands where the primary creative force wasn’t even an original member (Opeth is another). Forming as Dolmen in 1989 before flipping through a few other names and eventually settling on Absu in 1991, their driving force would join a year later, and metal would gain one of its all time great musicians and characters. Russley Randel “Emperor/Sir Proscriptor Magikus/McGovern” Givens has long been the band’s primary lyricist, vocalist, and drummer, going far beyond merely excelling in all three roles. The things he does behind the kit alone are exceeded by no one and equaled by few, but when you also consider his songwriting talents, vocal chops, and irresistible showmanship in a live setting, you have a man that belongs in the Heavy Metal Hall of Fame, if such a thing existed, that is.
After a somewhat conventional (but still quality) black/death album in Barathrum: V.I.T.R.I.O.L., the Absu’s greatness increased exponentially. The album trio of The Sun of Tiphareth, The Third Storm of Cythrául, and undeniable classic Tara saw Proscriptor, Shaftiel (bass, guitar, vocals), and Equitant Ifernain (bass, guitar, additional lyrics) bucking genre conventions at nearly every turn. After a five year hiatus, Proscriptor resurfaced in 2007 with a new lineup, and two killer new self-titled albums in 2009 (Absu) and 2011 (Abzu), proving that the Absu flame still had plenty of fire left (and evidently more still, if they’d ever finish the third of the Self-Titled Trilogy…).
These albums, along with a handful of various EPs and soundtrack and compilation contributions, have resulted in a ludicrous bounty of unforgettable, maniacal metal. Below are 13 prime examples why Absu is much more than just another leather-and-spikes clad black/thrash band.
Mythological occult metal to the world.
[The Sun of Tiphareth, 1995]
Absu is certainly fond of naming songs and albums after themselves. But, here’s the catch, they spell it differently. What!? “Apzu” is the track that rips open the womb on Absu’s sophomore release The Suns of Tiphareth. And, no, the title isn’t the band taking a swipe at Mike Tyson’s speech patterns. Listening to it now, it doesn’t sound out of place. In fact, it seems rather forward-thinking. Symphonic arrangements including baroque vocals, keyboards, and strings help keep this 11-minute-plus track a true ripper. The drumming is at first blush straight ahead, but Proscriptor McGovern lays down a range of rhythms from driving two-steps and blast beats to fill-laden bops over which he and guitarist Shaftiel balances growls, screams and pure 70s howls. But, that’s really only the start. “Apzu” is an example of the band’s ability to write complex compositions that support their fantastical and mythical tales. It is a near perfect example of their exploratory, foundational death metal-turned-blackened thrash style that forever altered the landscape of the burgeoning genre. At once raw, composed and seamless, “Apzu” rightly shares its name, at least pronunciation-wise, with the band.
HIGHLAND TYRANT ATTACK
[The Third Storm of Cythrául, 1997]
If The Sun of Tipherath saw Absu discovering their true sound and greatness, The Third Storm of Cythrául is where they fully unleashed their madness to the world. And no song shows that off better than the gleefully nuts “Highland Tyrant Attack.” While the heaps of molten blackened riffage, atmospheric keyboards, and super detailed drumming are obviously highlights, this song goes down as one of the many that ultimately owes its special touch to the vocal performance. While Proscriptor doesn’t handle all voices himself, the bulk of the song’s truly nutty spots are undoubtedly him. “A CONstant LUnar eyEE” is the first big moment, but later when he repeats the song title in maniacal fashion while Shaftiel responds with some rapid vocals of his own, the song truly becomes a classic.
It isn’t “Highland Tyrant Attack.” It’s “HIGHLAND-UH TY-RUHNT UH-TTACK!”
If you know Absu, you know that Absu can do subtle. Absu can do the slow build, the sleight of hand, the acoustic accompaniment and pensive churn. “Earth Ripper,” though? It rips. It’s right there in the name. Although the main theme in the verse pairs a rollicking guitar lick and a swinging, double-time shuffle beat, don’t be fooled; even as the pre-bridge solo break sounds like it’s fixing a homing beacon on Formulas Fatal to the Flesh, don’t be fooled; even as Proscriptor’s King-ly wail beckons you to bask in its glory, don’t you be fooled: the ripping waits, as it finally does for us all — death comes ripping.
DESCENT TO ACHERON
(EVOLVING INTO THE PROGRESSION OF WOE)
[Barathrum: V.I.T.R.I.O.L., 1993]
Absu’s proper debut full-length garners an equal amount of grousing and blessing, both of which seem justified; Barathrum builds on (and clearly challenges) the rudimentary death metal foundation put in place by the band’s earliest work, with a notable increase in the level of blackness upon the arrival of the freshly converted Emperor Proscriptor Magikus. But it’s uneven in the way it explores genre boundaries, and at times, the riffing gets lost in a wash of general commonness. “Descent to Acheron (Evolving into the Progression of Woe)” stands out, however, because of its peculiarities – namely, the distinctly avant-garde inclusion of operatic vocals reminiscent of (some of) Into the Pandemonium’s experimentation. While perhaps a little off-putting at first, eccentricities such as this give the song a greater complexity and deeper penetration. Plus, “Descent to Acheron” advocates one of heavy metal’s most sacred unwritten laws: gongs always make good songs GREAT.
Sometimes Absu takes the time to build a mood, and sometimes they write songs like “Girra’s Temple.” At barely two and a half unrelenting minutes, the track is Absu at their brutally efficient best. Starting with some of the circular, “jerked swaying” riffage featured throughout the first self-titled album, a gargantuan, barbaric, impossible-to-not-scream-along-to chorus almost comes out of nowhere. What follows is pure, classic Absuism: A mood shift that both changes the focus while increasing the intensity; a white hot solo section that sees Proscriptor’s drumming doing everything to wrench the spotlight away from the guitars; and an ever-increasing tendency towards the hit that expertly reintroduces that killer chorus. On an album that often saw Absu spreading their atmospheric wings, “Girra’s Temple” was a swift death strike out of the pale blue sky.
A QUEST INTO THE 77TH NOVEL
[The Sun of Tiphareth, 1995]
The funny thing about Absu is that despite the fact that they always sound like themselves, you can also make a decent case that nearly every single one of their albums sounds like a transition album. If Barathrum V.I.T.R.I.O.L. was a bit like Absu’s Diabolical Fullmoon Mysticism, then The Sun of Tiphareth… well, there’s no exact correspondence, is there? On the delightfully odd “A Quest into the 77th Novel,” Absu mostly ducks and weaves at a deliberate, almost restrained pace. The midsection, with typically absurd narration and acoustic overlays, gives way to a passage of burnished bronze that imagines a fusion of early Opeth and Aeternus. It’s almost unusually contemplative for these Texans, but then again, that’s the rub: always to be themselves apparently means always to be in motion. Suck on that rotten egg, Isaac Newton.
NEVER BLOW OUT THE EASTERN CANDLE
[World Domination compilation, 1994, and In the Eyes of Ioldánach, 1998]
Originally released as part of the World Domination compilation in 1994, “Never blow Out the Eastern Candle” has been one of Absu’s most signature songs since their early days. However, the definitive version would appear four years later on the monstrous In the Eyes of Ioldánach EP. It begins with a relatively (by Proscriptor standards) simple drum pattern, quickly introducing a classic black/thrash riff pattern. However, once it drops the shuffle, it gets mean, with whiplashing riffs and plenty of Proscriptor’s uniquely charismatic vocals (“CANDUHHLLL…”). When the speed picks up, it reflects both the more standard intro and threatening music that followed, leading perfectly into some absolutely fiery harmonized riffs and what initially feels like an early song climax. However, this intense, repeated outro — complete with one of Proscriptor’s finest Mad Hi-Hatter moments — is merely the icing on the cake, proving with theatrical rage why you aren’t likely to witness an Absu set that omits it. Blazingly blazin’ blazery.
CUSTOMS OF TASSEOMANCY
(QUOTH THE SKY, NEVERMORE) ACT I
[The Third Storm of Cythrául, 1997]
The Third Storm of Cythraul will likely always hold the unenviable position of being a bit of a dark horse favorite in the Absu catalog. Neither as baroquely expansive as The Sun of Tiphareth nor as throttlingly intense as undisputed masterwork Tara, it sometimes perches rather awkwardly like an overlarge bird. Proscriptor’s drums are a splashier array than is ideal, and the guitars are an almost distant wash. But on its many utterly sublime moments, it nonetheless scratches the ol’ speed-demon hellbeast itch like few bands on Ioldánach’s barren earth can. “Customs of Tasseomancy” pushes Absu’s speed to near-Tara levels of intensity, but they don’t quite yet have the precision to pull it off, so the entire hellacious clatter is perilously close to hurtling off the rails. That’s a great thing, so turn it up and shut my goddamn mouth already.
VORAGO (SPELL 182)
By 2001 Absu had perfected a recording style that supported their unique sound. Capitalizing on the raw formula, the tinny, treble-heavy production matched perfectly with the barked vocals of “Vorago (Spell 182).” Leaning heavily on thrash, the song is a relatively straight ripper at under six minutes. Much like the lyrics state, this track will not be contained to the underworld. Rather, “Vorago (Spell 182)” uses relentless, chaotic rhythms to tell the abysmal tale of earth-wandering ghouls in competition for souls. Again, their compositional skills are on full display as no chorus repeats, pre-choruses are formulated in and bridges abound. An unrelenting track, complete with clicky, never-ending bass drums, “Vorago (Spell 182)” shows how much Absu developed their sound after leaving death metal behind. Blackened elements perpetually orbit the core of planet thrash as vocals reach near kvlt levels of blackened influence towards the end. All-in-all, “Vorago (Spell 182)” is clearly a seminal Absu track on what may very well be Absu’s major turning point in their career, Tara.
IN THE NAME OF AUEBOTHIABATHABAITHOBEUEE
Deep in the heart of Llanfairpwllgwyngyllgogerychwyrndrobwllllantysiliogogogoch, Wales, there’s a sesquipedalianist with pneumonoultramicroscopicsilicovolcanoconiosis named Auebothiabathabaithobeuee who makes everyone around him miserable by insisting they call him by his full name, which happens to be Auebothiabathabaithobeuee Cornelius Von Tweeblevicarconstanstipooplehauser III.
Wait…that’s AuebothiabathabaitBOWbeuee Cornelius Von Tweeblevicarconstanstipooplehauser III. Auebothiabathabaithobeuee is yet another eccentric in the wondrously magickal Mythological Occult Metal world of Absu.
On the surface, “In the Name of Auebothiabathabaithobeuee” is pretty textbook, at least as far as Absu’s concerned; the song spends the wealth of its time teetering blackened, thrashy viciousness with an equal tottering of surly melody. What makes it extraordinary, though, apart from its fabulous name, is that wizardly lead that crops up around 1:30. One full minute of wild, sometimes blazing sometimes snaky-sleek fret-assailment that vaults an otherwise boilerplate cut into something that’s downright alluring. Credit for the lead, and for fighting off floccinaucinihilipilification, is due guest guitarist Michael Harris, who also plays in Threshold and Darkology.
CIRCLES OF THE OATH
Look, folks, I don’t know where the fuck App-zoo or Aphthsoo or Ackbloo or whatever the next album is supposed to be called is either. And yeah, it chafes, going on six years with nary a peep from the Absu camp. But you know how I console myself and assuage all this anticipatory angst? By listening to all the rest of the Absu and gorging on the bounty of riff-carrion they’ve left behind. And “Circles of the Oath,” man, are you kidding me? The whole damn thing really does run itself raw in circles, like a rum-crazed horse tethered to a pole, so much so that a song like this can’t quite be grasped in words. Yeah, it blasts out of the gate; yeah, it shucks and chatters and side-steps with that acoustic and slightly off-meter arpeggio figure; and yeah, it’s one of the most carpal tunnel-tastic fits in a career rife with outrageous rhythm guitar workouts, but: can you feel it? I mean, can you FEEL IT? Hell YES you can feel it. It goes in through your ears and then it lives in you and through you. The Absu is coming from inside the house. You’re not waiting for them; they’re waiting for you. So get ready, because in one year or ten or never, Aaaahbchoooo is going to circle back to that oath. Don’t break it.
SHE CRIES THE QUIET LAKE
It’s very damn possible that the word “hotdog” in a verb form has never been used in reference to a black metal band, but life is full of surprises. “She Cries the Quiet Lake” finds Absu hotdogging basically every trick in their particular book of antics, and it’s all done in the relatively brief sprint of four minutes. Ollies, kickflips and Primo slides in the form of 10,000 riffs, the smoldering annihilation of a drum kit and Proscriptor McGovern’s absolutely bananas approach to vocals are scored straight 10s throughout this particular trip. Idiosyncratic yips and howls, an insanely buoyant sense of melody (sans a single lead) and a fiendishly King Diamond-esque account of cosmic light falling at the hands of the shadows all push the cut into top-shelf Absu, and that’s only within the first minute and a half. The rest of the song adds to the potency by dropping a crucial groove contagious enough to raise the dead, and an emphatic “EHHHH!!” belched from Proscriptor serves as a very felicitous end.
“She cries the-huh quiyet lay-hey-hake!”
STONE OF DESTINY
(…FOR MAGH SLECHT AND ARD RIGH)
An album as monumental as Tara requires pacing and design to arrive at its ultimate potential, and pacing requires a massive climax to work. “Stone of Destiny” is that climax, pulling out every trick in the Absu handbook to send the album out in gargantuan style. One of Absu’s more expansive atmospheres is continually cut into by an attack that is seemingly more blackened and thrashy with every advancing riff; banshee wails and violent riffs maintain patterns while the drums provide the variation, taking over “lead instrument” duties; a softer piano passage is torn apart by the most razor sharp of speeding riff patterns and absolutely determined vocals. Every moment, riff, drum lick, vocal variation, and howl builds upon what comes before, somehow increasing the intensity of an album that had already bludgeoned the listener for over 40 minutes. It is arguably the finest moment on inarguably Absu’s greatest record, and a great example of how heavy metal can simultaneously be as deadly serious as it is unabashedly silly, and as savagely violent as it is musically sophisticated.
No but seriously, finish the new album. Please.