Imperial Triumphant’s Alphaville is a testament to modern musicians pushing themselves and musical history to new and fearsome areas, and it will change you
Experimental advances in metal are always a heavy gamble for the artists involved – diverting from the well-established templates of myriad genres and sub-genres is usually met with split reactions of those that don’t want anything messing with their favourite sounds and the precious few that applaud a brave progression. Black metal, as one of the genres that is consistently faced with po-faced elitism, has had some of the most astonishing injections of experimentation, many of which have made for impressive music and new avenues for others to follow. Deathspell Omega, Zeal & Ardor, Blut Aus Nord, Deafheaven, and many more have been the forerunners for a new era of the dark arts, all of who have made for numerous and ongoing discussions among the hordes.
New York’s Imperial Triumphant started out in a fairly standard neo-classical black metal direction, but quickly pushed themselves into braver, uncharted territories. With a basis of black/death metal a la Behemoth, they added in brass instruments and a focus on jazz to add kindling to their already intense blaze. Needless to say, listeners were stunned and many unsure of the success of these two seemingly unnatural genres performed in the same arena, but those that have a history in both movements saw the advantages immediately.
With a rallying cry of “welcome to the dawn of the new roaring 20s”, Alphaville is a revival of the 1920s jazz boom with some seriously dark shadows that reflect the urban decay of modern times. Unlike previous releases, the orchestration is more for ambience than a defining statement, the jazz element coming more from the guitars and additional vocal elements. This gives the trio more time to focus on the brutally heavy sections that are then fleshed out and coloured by the jazz finery, and the result brings forth a volley of emotions.
From the astounding artwork courtesy of Zbigniew Bielak (an artist who is starting to dominate many modern metal album covers with his broad vision) to the title, we’re faced with a film noir vision of dystopian society that is based in the future but feels as though we’re living through it in the present day. The claustrophobic journey ebbs and flows throughout, but gets denser and more terrifying the further in that we go, so much so that by the end of the tale, one is left breathless and shaken in a very cerebral way.
“Rotted Futures” starts from a quiet place and emerges into Imperial Triumphant laying waste to all and sundry with their distorted arsenal, with very little experimentation but tonnes of gusto. “Excelsior” takes this a step further with a bass-fuelled 70s jazz fusion intro which quickly burns into vicious black metal turmoil, packed to the brim with proggy strings, dissonant riffs, and atmospheric passages. With “City Swine”, the tempo is taken back down to digestible levels, the guitars play through some finger-twisting lines, and the vocal is demonic and eerie. Midway, we find some solo percussion that puts a new spin on the proceedings, but then another wave of sound hits hard and led by avant-garde stabs that make for an anxious listen.
And then, just to add to the end-of-the-world carnival, “Atomic Age” begins with a barber shop quartet, and this takes us down a creepy path imbued with malevolent vocals and psychedelic guitars, but ends with a symphonic swell of epic proportions. If there’s one song on the album that hits the jazz feel on the head, it’s “Transmission To Mercury” – a maudlin solo piano and horn start us off in standard jazz ballad fashion but, in true Triumphant style, the metal kicks in hard and is still led by the horn and a chorus (including some Diamanda Galas-esque screams) that are truly unique in this or any other medium. The title track is enormous and visceral, barely contained in furious grooves, with existential guitar leads and lyrics to match, and it might be the archetypal example of the band’s primal sound. The final original track is “The Greater Good”, which puts a cap on the lyrical tirade and some more blasting before we’re left to drift into the ether on twisted, otherworldly strings.
The record is finished up with covers of Voivod’s “Experiment” and “Happy Home” by The Residents, both of which are given the Imperial Triumphant treatment and made very much their own. That said, as great as they are, they do tend to rob the original material of a solid bookend, but it’s a small niggle that doesn’t make the album any less impactful or unique, and both songs are avant-garde to the max, so it’s all part and parcel of the overall package.
Alphaville is the band’s crowning achievement thus far, a cohesive and frightening vision of where we’re headed whether we like it or not, and musically, an enormous and highly successful blending of different genres into a swirling mass of exciting sound. It’s a headphone-necessary album to pick up the subtleties and nuances that might otherwise be lost, and you will find yourself getting lost in this nefarious, sinister landscape. It is a testament to modern musicians pushing themselves and musical history to new and fearsome areas, and it will change you. Guaranteed.
FFO: Deathspell Omega, Portal, Dodecahedron