Ahamkara
The Embers of the Stars

Atmospheric black metal is perfectly fine as a descriptor, but what it should really be called is headphones black metal. Strap on a pair of your best reality-blockers, close your eyes, and get lost in a blizzard of sound and fury. Mare Cognitum released a perfect experience with Phobos Monolith, my #1 pick for 2014. Wodensthrone, Artefact, Saor, Dekadent, and Blut Aus Nord‘s Memoria Vetusta trilogy are also excellent examples. And of course, there’s the granddaddy of atmospheric assaults, Emperor’s In the Nightside Eclipse – it still sounds great on speakers but demands a more intimate experience to best appreciate its fuzzy, cataclysmic glory.

The UK’s 2-man Ahamkara (vocalist Steve Black and Michael Blenkarn of Wodensthrone on all other instruments and programming) has all of the hallmarks of a terrific atmospheric black metal experience: long, rangy compositions (the shortest is 10 minutes); indecipherable shrieks; percussion so relentless that it’s evolved past rhythm, and cresting swells of malevolent and majestic melody. It’s also unfortunately got some mix and rhythm problems that distract as often as they gel, but we’ll get to that.

Opener “Midwinter’s Hymn” is simply glorious, with a central melody that’s more triumphant than black and furious. Play this for anyone who’s unaccustomed to the scrawling riffs, the Wrest-like shrieking vocals, and frantic drums, and you’re likely to get a quizzical reaction, but there’s no denying how cinematic and powerful this is. Once the song slows down to its stately midsection, the beauty becomes more apparent. It’s also worth noting that Ahamkara achieves this emotion without dipping into post-metal or shoegaze, lately the go-to in black metal whenever you want to add more swoon to your tune.

The synths come to the forefront on the somber follow-up, “On the Shores of Defeat,” creating a mood that recalls the late 90s Finnish band Throes of Dawn (a gem; look ‘em up). I also hear the bass a lot more on this track, wandering up and down its own simple melody below the rushing drums and plaintive guitars. Despite the blasts, it’s a slower and more depressive track than the opener, but still a strong composition with a lot of variety in its almost 13-minute running length. The minimal midsection, with its lapping waves, shimmering chords, swelling synths, and Summoning-like bass line, is a memorable moment.

“Lamentation of a Wraith” brings in a few new elements and techniques as well, like a fragile tremolo riding high above the thunder in the first minutes, and a plinky-plunky synth sound that comes in a bit later to add some fantasy whimsy. The central melody on this track is not as strong as its predecessors’ though; it’s more stretched out and languid, and when other elements like the synths or tremolo don’t rise up, the abrasive vocals have to fill up most of the space from minute to minute. The midsection is more successful, as the drumming slows down to make room for the bass once again, and the composition feels more cohesive as a result. Same with the final minutes, when a stronger tremolo guitar comes in to take control from the wall-of-noise approach.

Final track “To Invoke the Stars Themselves” creates a long break in the action with a 2-minute ambient intro, but then dives into a intense torrent that’s darker and more determined than the other tracks. As with the previous track, the main melody suffers from a lack of definition and clarity, but I love the atmospheric midsection (starting to see a pattern here?), as its bass melody and synths combine to create a mood you’d expect from Pink Floyd. That also gives way to a gorgeous third section, with a much stronger melody that rolls along for awhile at a gentle pace before cresting to a speedy and stunning closer.

Impressive as it is as a whole, The Embers of the Stars is not without its problems. There’s just so much going on during the faster moments of each track that the elements can pull away from each other. The mix is the biggest culprit, as it varies the presence of different elements at different times. Maybe that was done intentionally based on the needs of each passage, but I found it distracting. Given all of the chaos in the faster sections, I prefer when the melodic elements – the guitars, bass, and synths – are pushed up, and the vocals and percussion recede. When the drums ride high in the mix, it’s easier to notice when they move too quickly for the wall-of-sound guitars. The percussion is generally on point and in sync, but when it’s slightly off, you get a disjointed and uneven effect.

Any black metal album with 10+ minute compositions is also not going to be the sort of thing you just toss on to blare around the house – it will quickly become background noise – so I wonder what Ahamkara could accomplish with slightly shorter songs. Around 6 to 7 minutes rather than 10-12. Anthems to the Welkin at Dusk comes to mind. Keep the rangy atmospheric midsections, but craft even stronger melodies in each, on the level of “Midwinter’s Hymn,” which I think is still the standout here.

I’ve returned to this album many times over the year, and although I’ve become accustomed to some of its quirks, the occasional looseness does keep it from being an absolute knock-out like last year’s Phobos Monolith. Still, if you are a fan of any of the aforementioned bands (all fantastic company), then The Embers of the Stars is well-worth your time and focused attention.

[Visit the band's website]
Written by Jordan Itkowitz
September 28th, 2015

Comments

  1. Commented by: Nick Taxidermy

    I think Michael Blenkarn used to be in Axis Of Perdition. that’s awesome.


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