Two facts are indisputable: Primordial is a Very Good Band, and Exile Amongst the Ruins is a Very Bad Album. Maybe those facts seem difficult or painful to reconcile, but let’s face it: great bands release terrible albums. Old friends fall out of touch. Early loves lose luster. The erosion of time is indifferent and incessant. Hell, making triumphant sadness out of the tragedy of human transience has been one of Primordial’s primary themes for nearly a quarter-century, so perhaps coming to embody accidentally what they previously enacted dramatically is some sort of marvelous poetic resolution.
Thing is, it sure makes for a terrible heavy metal album.
Before we get too much more carried away, let’s rewind a bit: the most charitable way to judge Exile Amongst the Ruins is that it is entirely superfluous. And in truth, can we really say that Primordial has done anything particularly novel over their last several albums? To the Nameless Dead, Redemption at the Puritan’s Hand, and Where Greater Men Have Fallen remain truly excellent, stirring albums, but… did they do anything to advance Primordial’s core sound or style? Here, you may rightfully object that a band needn’t (and, often, shouldn’t) be expected to advance their core identity from album to album. Shouldn’t bands with a distinctive identity (and here, it must be said that Primordial has found a thrillingly idiosyncratic niche that few bands I can think of have matched) be praised for their ability to rise above the morass of faceless genre exercises and historical reenactors that plagues heavy metal’s current over-saturation? In short: yes, but there’s a sometimes fine line between stylistic self-confidence and stagnation.
All of these overwrought words are hedging around an unfortunately inescapable fact: this album is boring. Just… so, so boring. Primordial deserves one walloping hell of a benefit of the doubt given their stature and previous triumphs, but there’s no sugarcoating the fact that by nearly any metric one envisions, Exile Amongst the Ruins is overly familiar at best and insultingly sloppy at worst. A few examples should suffice. During the verses of “Where Lie the Gods,” the vocals and the guitars meander along in an extremely lazy tandem. Alan Averill’s vocals eventually whip themselves up into the sort of impressively impassioned fervor he’s known for, but immediately afterwards, the song’s main riff returns with an utterly simplistic drum beat at a cross rhythm which completely saps any momentum. The title track is one of the shabbiest, dullest songs the band has done. If you listen really closely to Simon O’Laoghaire’s drumming, any time he’s doing a pattern of skittering, tapped beats on his cymbals, it really sounds like he has no earthly clue what kind of pattern he’s playing.
The album is not without a few bright spots, but those spots tend to highlight the drabness of what surrounds them. Album opener “Nail Their Tongues” is quite strong, and in particular the blast-beaten clatter that the band whirls into halfway through is very satisfying. Sadly, however, the more one listens to the album, the more that midsection stands out because it is one of the only real remnants of the snarling blackness that used to punctuate Primordial’s dramaturgy much more frequently. The triumphant guitar cadence in the chorus of “Upon Our Spiritual Deathbed” is another highlight, where a mid-song bridge again ratchets up the intensity. “To Hell or the Hangman” deserves some credit for taking things in a new direction for Primordial with its two-step rhythm that feels almost post-punk, but it deserves even more demerits for how it never does anything with this new direction apart from driving it into the ground for a solid seven minutes with nearly no variation whatsoever.
“Stolen Years” is an unusually reserved song for Primordial, and as such stands out quite successfully. Truthfully, it is one of the first times in nearly twenty years that Averill’s vocals and Ciáran MacUiliam’s guitars have done something strikingly different in the context of Primordial. But ironically, on an album where nearly every song is several minutes longer than it should be, “Stolen Years” feels significantly shorter than it could have been, so while its contemplative melancholy is rich and lived-in, it nevertheless ends up feeling sadly underdeveloped.
From there, things continue to flag and falter. The drumming on “Sunken Lungs” is just abysmal. It sounds likes O’Laoghaire is trying to punch up some Brann Dailor-type finesse, but it does not work at all. Where his drums and Pól MacAmlaigh’s bass sound like they’re trying to lock into a tricky but prescribed rhythmic figure, they end up burbling along at awkward angles to one another and give the whole song a weirdly off-balance feel, like a folk song doused in accidental free jazz. The closer “Last Call” is dark and suitably morose, but it has absolutely no business being over ten minutes long. It cruises along in the same vein for most of its run time, then pulls back into what feels like it will be a pretty anticlimactic quiet acoustic ending, except then it brings the full band back in for what ends up being… an extremely anticlimactic electric ending.
For all the dramatic sweep that Averill’s vocals still bring to the picture, Exile Amongst the Ruins is the first album in Primordial’s entire career where that same drama and windswept vision is wholly lacking from the songs themselves. The instrumentation lacks any of the urgency that gave even the most formulaic songs on previous albums a sense of vitality. This is an overlong, undergood, and extraordinarily dull album that limps where it should gallop, trips where it should shuffle, and keeps going where it should gracefully bow out.