A common criticism of progressive or avant-garde music is that it’s too busy, too clinical, too academic, too self-indulgent. And if that criticism is itself a somewhat lazy cliche, it nonetheless also has the virtue of often being true. To put it another way, whatever its other virtues, a fair amount of progressive and avant-garde music seems to yell, “Look at me!” Tamás Kátai’s music as Thy Catafalque is no less ambitious, no less instrumentally proficient or dextrous, and no less self-assured, but instead of saying, “Look at me,” it speaks a humbler request: “Pay attention.”
“Hey man, it’s just a pretty picture,” you might rightly protest, but the reason it’s worth dwelling on something as seemingly tangential to the music as the art direction is that in Thy Catafalque, every element of the experience is interconnected and thoughtfully crafted. The art design, the lyrics (in both Hungarian and English translations), the compositions, the performances, the production, the micro-community of guest musicians from around the world: all of this serves the expression of the whole (or maybe that should be the whole of the expression).
If you’ve been following Tamás Kátai’s exploits as Thy Catafalque (particularly over the last decade and a half or so), it’s almost redundant to point out that Vadak is yet another brilliant, multifaceted album of adventurous, heavy music. Although Thy Catafalque’s clearest musical lineage is the restlessly exploratory second wave black metal bands who ventured into increasingly genre-agnostic territory later in the ‘90s and beyond (in particular Ulver circa William Blake or Blood Inside, Sigh, Solefald circa Neonism/Pills, and Ihsahn’s solo work), there are hints of everything from Devin Townsend, Orphaned Land, and Giant Squid, to Eastern European folk idioms and the expansive prog of Yes or King Crimson, to some of the titans of ‘70s jazz fusion (like Return to Forever, Mahavishnu Orchestra, Miles Davis, or Weather Report). Add to that brew plenty of melodeath, post-punk, kosmische musik, and industrial elements, and you’d… well, you’d frankly be looking at a godawful mess if it weren’t for Kátai’s credulity-straining ability to weave these disparate elements together into a seamless, natural-sounding whole.
Thy Catafalque is music possessed of a polyglot zeal – a desire to speak whatever musical language is necessary to chase a particular feeling. This means that diving into a new Catafalque album requires a sense of trust – trust in the integrity of the process, which allows the openhearted listener to ride the wild joy of every unanticipated twist and return. The opening track flirts with some of the heaviest material of the album, and yet it’s not a feint, particularly as the seemingly straightforward guitar leads splinter unexpectedly and the chorus opens up into a booming, infectiously choral chant that sounds like Moonsorrow via Paradise Lost at their synth-poppiest. “Gömböc” closes with a stupidly heavy chugging breakdown, complete with a warbly bass solo, but the midsection has some beautiful synths that sound like marimba or xylophone, with the drum programming so swift that it almost borders on breakbeat territory. The drums throughout Vadak, though clearly programmed, have a mostly naturalistic sound, and the tight control over those rhythms plays beautifully against all of Kátai’s rich, multilayered synth and other programmed tones.
Even when Kátai reaches for seriously heavy sounds, there’s a fleetness to his instrumentation that lends a lightness of spirit even to the most punishing intensity. The fourth song is a particularly wild example of this, opening as a sort of thrashy melodeath piece before wandering farther afield. The title of the song (“Az energiamegmaradás törvénye”) translates as “The Law of Conservation of Energy,” which is a perfect way to describe Thy Catafalque’s music in general. Even as the songs careen from seriously intense modern metal to more outré styles and back again, the most notable throughline of Kátai’s music is the fluidity of its energy. All of these disparate musical elements are woven so seamlessly that even if you can’t describe how you got to where you are, the journey feels uninterrupted.
The space that Thy Catafalque plays in is so malleable that sometimes it feels like sleak, streamlined futurism, and other times it feels like the florid naturalism of high Romantic art. After the furious pace of the opener, second track “Köszöntsd a hajnalt” pulls back into a slower pace that allows the crunch of the guitar to foreground the playful melancholy of the redpipes (an electronic bagpipe instrument). The multi-tracked female vocals at the start of the song, coupled with the folk melody, are suggestive of the famed Bulgarian choral recordings of Le Mystère des Voix Bulgares, and the solo on lead guitar from guest Breno Machado is perfect punctuation.
As Vadak unfolds (and with repeated listens), the architecture of its hour-plus running time becomes tangible, with the front half of the album featuring many of its heavier moments, capped off by the utterly mammoth “Móló,” which stays in a heavy space but pushes outwards concentrically, with pulsing waves of increasingly complex and layered synths so that by its midpoint, it sounds like an especially cosmic Tangerine Dream excursion. The back half of the album stretches its legs into even more adventurous territory. “Kiscsikó” is a fascinating, folk melody-driven piece, with a rustic two-step rhythm and some inspired additional touches, including acoustic guitar, wood block-type percussion, and an almost mariachi-style horn section that echoes the main guitar motif, while “A kupolaváros titka” is a beautiful piece of urban folk/jazzy trip-hop whose lyrics evoke the playful modernism of a writer like Italo Calvino.
In fact, across the measured sprawl of Vadak, Kátai’s lyrics and melodies float in a liminal space between directness and impressionism, with turns of phrase that could be as equally descended from archaic fertility rites as from the existential matter-of-factness of astrophysics. The lyrics reflect on death as the shared end of all life, but from the perspective of acceptance and reflection rather than rage or denial. In fact, the images that recur most often in the lyrics are those of summer turning to autumn, and of people transforming into deer. Juxtaposing the inevitable march of time with a fanciful, Ovid-like reverie of metamorphosis might seem like avoidance of unpleasant truths, but instead, particularly when paired with the steady exhalation of the closing song “Zúzmara,” the impression is instead of a knowing kind of sorrow, an “Isn’t it pretty to think so?”
The most direct expression of the album’s sentiment might be contained in the lyrics to “Az energiamegmaradás törvénye”:
“What I am will not exist tomorrow
And what you are will not exist either.
Behold it from afar but in vain
You are not able to see the streaming energy
Since you are also part
Of the incomprehensible, endless process.
But the matter will keep on its course
Towards the final nothingness.
Martina Veronika Horváth’s guest vocals throughout the album are a beautiful counterpoint to its frequent harshness, and they strike with particular richness on the album’s final two songs. “Vadak (Az átváltozás rítusai),” the second of the album’s two long-form pieces, brings back some of the heavier tones that had retreated in the album’s second half by galloping out of the gate with a blackened prog sheen similar to that of latter-day Enslaved, but it also dives into a beautiful midsection with violin straight out of the Yanni Live at the Acropolis playbook and some overlaid saxophone lines that sound inspired by the Philip Glass Ensemble. It all comes together perfectly in the end, with the song’s last two minutes an utterly crushing coda that comes across like Opeth’s “Deliverance” played through a filter of SubRosa at their chamber-doomiest. Horváth’s deep lilt rides a resonant, droning pulse across “Zúzmara,” and the journey ends with a sense of expansive, expectant unfinishing – a question spoken by the sea, an answer swallowed by the wind.
“Genius” is a concept laden with so much baggage that it’s almost meaningless. One of the biggest sins of its overuse, however, is that it too readily erases the painstaking work of the creative process. To call someone a genius usually turns it into something that they are rather than something that they do, and it pushes the appreciation of artistry into a sort of squishy mysticism instead of a practical reverence of the craftwork. In Vadak, Tamás Kátai has crafted yet another impeccable display of overbrimming ambition and high-wire acrobatics. This music speaks to me in more languages than I know how to process, but just like that woman perched atop a high, wild hill, it’s not about me. Pay attention to this music and to the “incomprehensible, endless process” through which we are all connected, and through which, despite the profound loneliness of existence, we are each a little less alone.