It’s no secret that the crew at Last Rites likes their black metal super castley. Spooky castles perched atop perilous mountaintops. Castles inhabited by tricksters, ghouls and maidens given over in service of the dark side. Castles who are inhabited by flying Counts. Castles surrounded by moats of fog. Castles that float in the clouds. Castles that dwell at the bottom of the ocean, their inhabitants waterlogged but thriving. Castles that are in irreparable states of decay yet remain beautiful and stalwart in their defiance of the inevitable. Castles set east of the Gap of Rohan and North towards the Derndingle just in the shadow Fords of Isen.
The absolutely off-kilter, bonkers crew that makes up Lychgate (which includes members of such bands as Esoteric, Macabre Omen, and Acherontas) certainly produce music that could be expected to be heard in a castle. And, while any of the aforementioned castles would probably suffice, Lychgate comes across as a syphilitic fever dream of Dracula. Picture the Count seated at an organ, syphilis sores spreading across his neck and face as he hammers out run after run—blocks of evil, dissonant chords as the virus spreads into his brain. It’s here, where the terminal virus collides with the fever, as the brain begins to truly erode into a mere webbing of its former brilliance, that the music of Lychgate is born. Each album thus acts as a sort of final swan song from a version of Count Dracula riddled with syphilis.
Label: Blood Music
With their latest, A Contagion in Nine Steps, dynamic vocal work takes center stage, replacing was was formerly chaotic tempos and organ-heavy accompaniment. The revelation is that Greg Chandler can flat out sing; guy has some serious pipes. Organs also have pipes. So, maybe his pipes replaced the organ pipes of prior records. Regardless, the dynamic range of his voice hits growls to screams—his ecstatic clean vocals and his nuanced, soft, mournful clean lines are enticing across the 42 minutes that cover all nine steps of the unknown contagion (which oddly only consists of six tracks).
A Contagion in Nine Steps is a work in whole. There is no parsing out of separate tracks. Rather, we end up discussing different mouvements or segments of the work. As such, it’s easy to become entranced, like in “Unity of Opposites” when the guitar is cyclically picking out a short pattern. Much like the swirling, disorienting cover (which can be viewed as a few different things if you relax your eyes), the music can attack you from multiple angles at once. Always building, even after a regress, the simple guitar line gives way to thick chords, angry, demonic voices, and more than a few guitar squeals angrily protesting the plodding direction of the mouvement.
It’s also here, and on “Atavistic Hypnosis,” that the clean vocals truly reveal the ability of Greg Chandler on full display. Harmonizing with himself, reaching for high notes, screeching and then falling back into a lower growl (or sometimes a clean baritone), he runs the full gamut of vocal ability. All the while, the music underneath rarely rises to meet his feet, allowing him to not only take the reigns, but haul the entire horse and cart behind him. The music is more of an accompaniment to the main attraction; his voice takes on many characters as he weaves his syphilitic tale.
Syphilis aside, A Contagion in Nine Steps is another bold, experimental and altogether successful release from Lychgate. There are slight knocks to be had—in particular, the thing that is the easiest to praise, the vocals, are also the easiest aspect of the album to knock. They are, at times, somewhat overdone to the point of maudlin, emotional saccharin that’s difficult to digest. Further, the instrumentation for this work is, at least for Lychgate, relatively underdone. Fans of theatrical metal, however, will likely point to this album as their favorite in the Lychgate catalog. And that’s what is so great about this wacky band, there’s something in their discography for everyone.
Any Lychgate release is going to take time for any brain to process. Like prior work, this one will certainly require multiple spins and the sort of ecclesiastical drunkenness that comes after repetitive, meditative listening. A Contagion in Nine Steps isn’t in your system until, well, it contaminates you. Which will likely happen when Dracula sinks his fangs into your neck and you feel the pus from his syphilis sores dripping down your cheek. At that moment, you will have arrived.