Wednesday, February 11, 2015
Volahn - Aq'Ab'Al' 
From the obscure label Crepusculo Negro comes the indefinite answer to the inquiry: what would it sound like if the Mayans or Aztecs played black metal? My response: pretty fucking cool. I'll go right at it that the album cover was the single initial selling point for me, a beautifully vivid and colorful depiction of a bunch of natives in leopard skins and queer bird feathers on their gigantic headpieces, working on their sacred task of priestly sacrifice. The mastermind behind the music - one Eduardo ''Volahn'' Ramirez - is in alignment with an impressive series of bands, most of them being his solo projects. Out of his characteristically USBM-styled side projects, Volahn retains something of a greater understanding of cultural identity and sounds which native South Americans would enjoy, perhaps stemming out from his moody American tribulations into something with greater uniqueness. Certainly, I would not have thought that I would have fallen for this album beyond the pretty cover art, but as it turns out ''Aq'Ab'Al'' is of the better black metal albums I've heard in recent times.
The guitars are fuzzy and crepuscular, ringing with far less distortion and far less echo than you'd expect. I love the fact that ''Aq'Ab'Al'' is a ''riff'' album, with plenty of fuzzy, if somewhat indistinct, chord lines guiding the harrowing vocal lines, upped by arrays of dizzying, gritty chords that should remind one the USBM act Odz Manouk, which in many other ways has a similar sound to Volahn. The essential philosophy here is to blast out these tangy chord progressions almost all the time, with enough variation, atmospheric ups and downs and vocal haunts to keep the listener going through tracks like the impressive 13-minute ''Najtir Ichik''. The melodious moments are perfect when rippling with the vocalists echoing howls, allowing for brief if sublime moments of unfrazed atmospheric excellence that have an Austere feel to it. But of course if the album merely stopped there and got stuck far its egocentric, Darkthrone/USBM worshiping ass, it wouldn't really be deserving of some accolades, would it? The one personal point which captivated me best was the looming, lo-fi synthesizers playing out in the background. You could relate the synths to anything - from Emperor to Samael to the more recent and obscure Australian outfit Naxzul - but songs like ''Bonampak'' employ synthesizers in a such a manner that they make their presence briefly noticed before fading back into the swirling mix.
Volahn isn't merely paying tribute to the Aztecs and Incas in concept here. While much of the aesthetics hold more appeal to the USBM and/or Norse Black metal listener, there is that laudatory arrangement of enchanting Spanish guitar interludes, tribal instruments in between songs, and a lot more straight, albeit technically imbued riffing going on than most other acts of this sort. Eduardo likes to play by the lower frets, so naturally much of the grandeur and mushy goodness of lower end guitar tones disappear, but one can certainly not complain when it's being executed in such a skillful manner. This stuff doesn't go to the level of, say, ''In the Nightside Eclipse'', mind you, but you're definitely going to have grisly kick out of them. That said, the slew of weird and twitchy melodies are hardly followed up by corresponding ambient effects or equally overwhelming keyboard upsurges, which might have been superb, but supposedly stress hot RAW the guy is.
If you can bear through riff-centric, rarely post-metalized, harrowing black metal, this is definitely the thing for you. As said, the incorporation of so many variants of black metal, including some Necromantia from the Greek scene who has enamored this petty reviewer with two sacred albums (which is probably why I came to like this album) in the early 90's, makes the music almost as rich as the cover which holds the entry to its ancient, prosaic gate, but the album is not still not intricate of emotionally gripping as it needs to make its nearly 60-minute run time entirely worthwhile. As is the prevailing problem with black metal, they could have winnowed some of the less impressive chord progressions and substituted them with suitably deeper breaks into consternation - or just leave trimmed like that. ''Quetzalcoatl'' was probably my favorite piece from this record: an 8-minute display of sheer harrowing finesse, memorable pace transitions, and swerving leads, but most of the tracks still held out in the end. Finally, my synthesizer fetish could have achieved greater satisfaction if they'd stuck out more prominently here, but I guess that's for another day. It's not everyday that you have a band of natives playing guitars and double-bass drums in your promo box, so whether your tastes lie in Darkthrone, Gris, Watain, USBM, or just plain sacrificial heart-eating frenzy, this one's for you. Dig in.