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I've put off writing about Unlock the Shrine for a long time. In part, it's because I've grown so close to the album as a listener that it's difficult to interpret it on a critical level anymore. What's more, such an atmosphere-based piece of art is all-the-more difficult to articulate into words. The magic The Ruins of Beverast generated with this debut cannot all have been intentional; atmosphere is born from a collusion of multiple clandestine words. This is intellectual art, but it is felt more than it is thought about.
Unlock the Shrine ranks among the very few albums I've ever heard that sound like they were partially drawn from another dimension. It is pure, unbridled psychosis expressed as sound, and no number of repeated listens can really serve to distinguish the music from its extraterrestrial aura. I hold Alexander von Meilenwald's The Ruins of Beverast as the artistic pinnacle of all black metal, arguably rivaled only by Deathspell Omega. Unlike DSO however, I'm not sure I could directly articulate why I feel so strongly about it. Even moreso than Beverast's following masterworks, Unlock the Shrine hinges on the subjectivity of its atmosphere. Like an expedition into the dark sub-conscious of a Romantic-era composer, or a trip back ton alternate, hellish version of the Middle Ages. With this debut, Meilenwald immediately established himself as the most visionary conjurer of atmosphere; with an equally firm grasp of composition to boot, Unlock the Shrine is matched only by a handful of other black metal albums; a few of which being the albums Alexander would make after this.
If there's one thing that might set The Ruins of Beverast apart from any other band, it's that I might call any one of their albums my personal favourite; the choice is merely dependent on the time of day and mood I'm in at the given time. Rain Upon the Impure may be the most ambitious of the four to date, but I don't know if I would ever have learned to appreciate it fully without the demanding presence of Foulest Semen of a Sheltered Elite. While it's probably safe to say 2013's Blood Vaults is the least incredible of the four to date, it still managed to be one of my favourite records from that year, and there are still times when I'll swear by it as a bonafide masterpiece. With the release of Unlock the Shrine, Alexander von Meilenwald had no such precedent; Nagelfar may have earned their place amongst the black metal elite, but a solo project is a fresh slate, and a very different kind of game.
As for Unlock the Shrine, it's the kind of album that could not have come about as a collaborative effort. To varying degrees, all atmospheric black metal is intended to lull the listener into a sense of introspection, but Unlock the Shrine is unique in the sense that it seems to draw you into someone else's head. It's the sound of a demented psyche falling apart at the seams, and The Ruins of Beverast don't get that impression across by drawing within the lines. The eerie downtuned guitars, the reverberating vocals, the creepy choice of voice samples, the murky, lurid production; all of these sound imperfect and ugly, and I think another person with sway in the result would have tempered them to sound more conventional. The Ruins of Beverast's Medieval-tinged, ambient-heavy subset wasn't necessarily using ingredients a world removed from what had already been explored by forward-thinking atmospherists like Blut Aus Nord or even Summoning, but the sharp-edged, counter-intuitive manner in which von Meilenwald combines them gives the music a sense of Otherness that could not come into being through good intentions alone.
The atmosphere and execution, for all its ugliness, is absolutely perfect on a subjective level. Like most music in this style, the performance is kept distorted and murky, but the production knows just enough clarity to leave to let Alexander's brilliantly eerie melodies shine through. Melody is the unlikeliest thing for Unlock the Shrine to have succeeded in, and it's perhaps the fact that melody sounds so alien in this doomy ambient setting that they sound so vital. "Between Bronze Walls" actually stands as one of the finest compositions I have ever heard in black metal, and it's in large part due to the strokes of genius with which Meilenwald is able to implement his melodies. Accompanied by an anxiety-ridden sample (taken from the film The Believers, written by then-future Twin Peaks co-writer Mark Snow) the melody Meilenwald chooses to lead his debut's overture is far from pretty, but it's memorable; it slithers itself into your mind and stays there. Even the ambient interludes here (of which there are plenty) offer up chilling earworms to keep the listener under the spell. Though an even ration for song-to-interlude is generally grating, von Meilenwald makes these ambient snippets into self-contained doses of psychedelic horror. The only other black metal musician I can think of that nails this sort of 'psychotic dark ambient' as well is Leviathan's Jef Whitehead, whose own doom-centric project Lurker of Chalice would probably make for the closest analogue to Beverast's own sound at this early stage in the band's development.
If "Between Bronze Walls" is the best thing this album has to offer, then "The Clockhand's Groaning Circles" isn't far behind. Again, this is an example of the kind of horrors made possible by pairing meticulous songwriting with ravenous atmosphere. Meilenwald includes a subtle stroke of brilliance here in the song's intro; keep an ear fixed for the tempo, and you may find it lines up perfectly with a 'groaning clockhand'. "Summer Decaptitation Ritual" showcases the album's most surprising moment, where a vocal sample of Medieval flagellants segues into a jaunty keyboard bit right out of the Summoning handbook. "Euphoria When the Bombs Fell" blends sacred choirs with profane dissonance, and revels in the conflict between the two. The final twenty minutes of the album could almost be seen as a single, gradually building entity, though neither "Unlock the Shrine" nor "The mine" offer anything in the way of catharsis or escape from the album's mental turmoil. Unlock the Shrine is one of the most imperfect masterpieces I have ever heard, but that's not at all to suggest it is in any way flawed. The malevolent awkwardnesses here aren't entirely controlled (and wouldn't have come to pass any other way) but it's readily evident that they've been meticulously pushed by a rare genius of this art form.
After serving a lengthy amount of time in prominent German black metal band Nagelfar, Alexander von Meilenwald chose to embark on a towering vision with himself being the sole band member. Although a demo was previously unleashed into the deep web of underground black metal, this is the first prominent Ruins of Beverast release as well as the first one to be fully realized. Unlock the Shrine is mired under a deep shroud of undying darkness, unnerving disorientation and damp atmosphere. It twists and turns down the bleak corridors of the darkest corners of the mind, digging deep and indeed requiring an ample amount of time to be properly digested. Being equally appropriate for a nighttime hike in the wilderness or a leisurely stroll through a crack-infested urban slum, this offering encompasses aural ugliness and terror while still leaving sufficient room to allow the atmosphere to breathe and properly sink in.
This album maintains relatively lo-fi and unpolished recording values, while at the same time not coming off as all that inaccessible. Although darker than a basement prison cell, there is not a moment that is obfuscated under layers of hissing distortion. Subscribing to a prominent doomy approach, this is generally slow or mid-paced; however, that isn't to say that faster sections don't break out from the lumbering mass on a semi-regular occasion. The inclusion of doom-oriented passages certainly adds to this album's unique atmosphere. This recording feels dark and damp throughout, while oscillating between a cerebral and visceral approach. This atmosphere is littered with dark ambience, samples – both of spoken word and of assorted sounds and bizarre tones.
While this features no shortage of cold, unhinged distortion, melody often creeps its way into the mix. These melodies are expertly crafted and provide a glimmer of light in the overwhelming darkness. While many albums will have a main attraction – be that riffs, melody, songwriting or vocal performance, the success of Unlock the Shrine lies within the culmination of varied dynamics and individual parts allowing for a truly memorable whole. This is more than the sum of its parts – everything compliments what it is playing along with or next to. There isn't one thing that overshadows the next thing, the convergence of many different aspects allow for the finished work to be so monolithic and powerful.
The keyboards and samples are used a lot more actively than in your average black metal band, creating an atmosphere while also not being a background affair. The keyboard is not just lingering ambient drones – they play prominent melodies that often emit a militaristic vibe. The guitar often is a barrage of grainy tremolo, although does slow down into crushing (although vaguely melodic) doom passages. The man does know how to contort a musical idea through various stages of life. For example, there's a carnivalesque keyboard melody in “Summer Decapitation Ritual” that soon morphs into a repeating truly epic riff (that includes the keyboard still playing a slightly altered version of it). This later comes back in a black metal section in the form of raging-yet-melodic tremolo. The vocals are a somewhat reserved snarly rasp, which are executed well. Although definitely holding a certain amount of bite, they never go into a full fledged assault, allowing his wondrous instrumentation to take centre stage. His drum work is very successful, knowing when to hold back as well as when to blast into a bombastic fury.
The one criticism that this album does tend to draw is the amount of interludes it has. Every black metal opus is followed by a shorter atmospheric piece. To be honest, the amount of ambient present in black metal (especially the amount that is completely average) can wear tiring. Ambient certainly works well in black metal, however, the amount of saturation has grown a bit high, with many bands seeming to sprinkle it on as an afterthought. These interludes are not token ambient filler. They are an integral part of the release's structure, allowing it time to breathe as well as adding to the creepy and unnerving nature of this beast. “Procession of Pawns” feels like an unknown hostile being slowly creeping towards you, hidden by the shadows. The watery dark psychedelic guitar tone in “God Sent No Sign” works perfectly alongside the off-kilter melodies. “Subterranean Homicide Lamentation” lurches forward in a state of militaristic menace. The only miniscule gripe that should be brought forward is that he probably could have found more powerful gunshot samples for “White Abyss”. These are not simple filler or constructed solely for a more atmospheric break from the more extreme material; the album would not be complete without them.
This recording is truly a monolithic and complex entity. It includes countless twists and turns that all go somewhere viable instead of spastically twisting off into an ocean of overcomplicated pointlessness. Everything here reaches towards a greater purpose. This release is an absolute beast, a manifestation of terror and unbridled hideousness. Although small rays of light do occasionally present themselves, this is no walk in the park. This does take some time to sink in; the journey that unfolds is worth every second of your patience.
Alexander von Meilenwald is an awesome musician, and the German black metal scene was definitely crippled when he and Zorn split Nagelfar. However, Alex thankfully continued his musical career with his own solo project The Ruins of Beverast. This new project is a far cry from Nagelfar's heathenism themes though. He seems to be more interested in darker themed music this time around as evidenced in this project's debut release Unlock the Shrine. The good news is that Alex can still make his music shine on his own. The bad news is that this debut as a whole has a real hard time shining and that the music really isn't as strong as it could have been.
The music played here actually jumps around several styles while maintaining a dark tone. There's characteristics of depressive black metal here, especially in "Between Bronze Walls" and "The Clockhand's Groaning Circles". There's also a sort of really fast and raw approach on "Euphoria When Bombs Fell" and "Summer Decapitation Ritual"; these songs are really chaotic and remind me of Gnaw Their Tongues' material that leans more toward black metal with even more black metal influence thrown in. The album produced from this mix is an intriguing one that really shines in some places, but is also rather dim in others.
My biggest gripe with this album is the excess of interludes. There's one after every song on this album; and while some of them sound interesting like the creepy "Skeleton Coast" and the outro piece "White Abyss", their overall presence does very little for this album. If they weren't there, the album would be a good 14 and a half minutes shorter (and that's even if "White Abyss" was kept as an outro). With them in there, this album is a daunting 70 minutes, so taking away the interludes would actually be beneficial. None of the interludes actually sound bad, they're just really unnecessary.
As for the actual songs, the quality varies. "Between Bronze Walls" is a slower paced piece, but it's varied enough with its riffs during its eight minute course to keep things interesting. The other slower piece is "The Clockhand's Groaning Circles" which is much weaker with less interesting riffs included. Same deal with the two songs following the faster more chaotic pattern, "Euphoria When Bombs Fell" and "Summer Decapitation Ritual". "Euphoria..." is a rather average piece with not a lot of standout moments; on the other hand, "Summer Decapitation Ritual" is really, really impressive with the whirlwind of riffs more memorable and the catchy break in the middle to keep things interesting. The remaining two pieces, the title track and "The Mine", are definitely good enough to place the album in the above average scoring range with "The Mine" being the ideal piece to end the album with its memorable chanting at the end fading into "White Abyss".
This album is good, but it's not great. It feels bloated with almost 15 minutes that could have been put to better use (and will be in The Ruins of Beverast's subsequent albums). There's a few winners among the songs, but the closest thing to a loser would be "The Clockhand's Groaning Circles" with its boring riffs that drag out for too long. Unlock the Shrine is still worth checking out for the winner songs though, especially "Summer Decapitation Ritual". Alexander von Meilenwald will prove his musical genius to a much better degree in the next two albums though; that's where his essential material is.
I think the problem with a lot of modern black metal is that it doesn't make you feel anything. It can be full of all the screams, blastbeats and tremelos you can imagine, and while being a fun bit of entertainment, never really conspires to become anything more. On the other hand, you get artists like Xasthur who try so desperately to capture that fragile black metal essence that was once so alive in the early 90s, but ultimately end up sounding like mediocre slightly boring fuzz.
All this waffling does serve a purpose however, because presented within this album is something quite astounding; some of the most convincingly evil-sounding black metal I've ever heard, which also to some extent progressive as well (I know, what?!). Everything about this release reeks of macabre, grandiose evil, but doesn't resort to any over-the-top "RAAAARGH LOOK AT US WE'RE REALLY FUCKING DARK AND UNHOLY" black metal clichés.
The guitar tone is the most beautifully dark thing ever, it literally drips with venom, it has somewhat of a "buzzsaw" quality yet is nowhere near the mess of static and fuzz that certain bands (ahem... Black Funeral) resort to, it is very much clear and discernable,and has a kind of droning metallic quality which drapes the whole album in this archaic cloak of antiquity, like its the soundtrack to something happening in the 19th century. To understand what I mean listen to the riff which begins at around 1:00 in "The Clockhand's Groaning Circles". It sounds deathly, chilling, old, and full of intent and atmosphere, but saying this still gets me no closer to conveying the sheer engulfing mood contained within. It seems a bit of a cop-out to say its indescribable, but it is something so delicate and fragile, that pure essence of evil which attracted me to black metal.
Saying that however, that is not the entirity of the attractions of this album. What makes this so incredibly sublime is the way von Meilenwald has not only captured that sound so well and with seemingly so little effort, but has taken that base and built upon it, creating something truly special. Long winding song structures, with all sorts of awesome stuff like choirs and medieval horns, make this rewarding, engrossing, good music with a killer atmosphere, rather than just atmosphere for atmosphere's sake and nothing really musically engaging as Xasthur creates. I think it is rare that any popular music transcends being mere entertainment and becomes something more, but some moments on this disc seems to perfect to be labelled as such. I hesitate to call it art, (especially coming from the ludicrous genre of black metal) but some songs on here are absouletly perfect, and I would be unwilling to change them in any way. Namely: "Euphoria when the Bombs Fell", and "The Clockhand's Groaning Circles", both of these songs contain the aforementioned dark and archaic atmosphere in bucketloads. The former is a ferocious whirlwind of intense drumming, accompanying this evil as shit riff. The lyrics deal with what I can assume to be someone being bombed during a war. However, the riff of this song always makes me think of the buzzing of the engines of the bomber plane, and there is a fantastic break in the song with a choir singing, and this always brings to mind images of people in church about to be bombed, completely unaware of their fate, nameless, faceless casualities of a forgotten conflict. The effect is nothing short of absolutely profound.
The latter song is the second longest on the album, clocking in at around 10 minutes, and is a slower beast with some doom influences, and while I shan't go into the same detail, I shall say that it i undoubtedly a beast of epic proportions.
Although I am highlighting these two songs, every 'proper' song on here (that is to say, not filler) is equally splendid and contributes to this albums immense relistenability. However, on the subject of the filler, its pretty crap, especially when its being contrasted against the sheer intense atmospheric mastery of the main attraction (hence the 99). It doesn't really detract a whole lot though, because the skip button was invented for a reason.
And there you have it. The fact that someone as shockingly lazy as me could be bothered to write a review of it, one this long at that, should be enough to convince you its definitely worth checking out, even if your interest in black metal is minimal. This is easily one of the best black metal albums of the decade, and effortlessly stakes its place side by side with the elite of the second wave.
And another thing; this album is a grower. Its fully quality comes out in relistens where you can really get inside the music rather than just living for the moment as with more extreme black metal stylings.
Overall: Perfect production, amazing atmosphere, some really original and unexpected twists which always work, and some crap filler which is easily skipped.
The Ruins Of Beverast, the one man creation of Alexander von Meilenwald, burst onto the black metal scene in 2003, but it wasn't until 2004 that the bands reputation really began to grow. Looking at the reputation of this band is like watching the evolution process in fast-forward. Since 'Unlock The Shrine', The Ruins Of Beverast have gone from strength to strength in a number of ways.
This is one band that are REALLY interesting. Although Alexander von Meilenwald's creation is primarily black metal, you cannot lump the debut full-length into the same group as most of black metal's record, even the best one's. 'Unlock The Shrine' is a look into the future, if you will, at what black metal has the potential to be and could be now if artists put a bit more effort into their works. This man, Alexander von Meilenwald, has single handily proven what can be done. What makes this band even more astonishing is that glaringly obvious fact, it's a one man band. Such a fact leaves no room for excuses when it comes to bands talking about how they'd be stronger if they had an extra guitarist, or another vocalist because this man has done it all himself and what a start to life in the big time.
Obviously, black metal will never have the appeal of most modern day music, but this is one band that could break away from the majority and form some sort of 'super league', which would involve the very best acts in the genre from all over the globe. If black metal were a competition and we needed a European representative, look no further. Germany, over recent years anyway, has begun to provide the adoring public with more and more acts to be blessed with in the most unholy ways. The Ruins Of Beverast are just the next act, in a long line, of German acts who have broken through the surface to reveal a core, hidden at the very depth of the genre. Bands like these make black metal what it is, supreme.
'Unlock The Shrine' could be seen as a metaphor. Well, it certainly is seen that way by me. If we look closely, we may find several acts, creeping around the darkness that is the black metal realm, that are just as good, if not better than this band, but for now, i'll be quite happy to stay put and adore The Ruins Of Beverast. How does Alexander von Meilenwald make his music so special? Well, there are a number of ways in which he goes about achieving something quite spectacular. First, the innovative guitar work. Although this German act does use standard black metal formulas like repetition, The Ruins Of Beverast do it in a way that makes you feel as if you're hearing every chord as if it's new to you. It's fresh and exciting.
'Unlock The Shrine' is a masterpiece for other reasons too. The way in which it can mould several different soundscapes throughout one song and thus, a vast selection of atmospheric gems on the whole, is simply remarkable. From the epic 'Between Bronze Walls', with it's dark atmosphere hidden under lays of astonishing musicianship to the free flowing sounds of 'The Mine'. No matter what it is you like about black metal, you'll probably find it here. Dark, depressive and raw. Seemingly able to control the genre and mix it with others is another strength to this masterful debut. Doom, funeral doom and sometimes drone with those low droning riffs, The Ruins Of Beverast cannot be compared to any other act out there. Try as you might, you won't succeed in finding another band like this. The different variations of vocals. Dark growls, whispered voices and tormented screams, it's all in there and do you know what? It doesn't sound at all out of place.
A different side to the band is the each emotion portrayed. The horrors of life come alive as The Ruins Of Beverast put you through your paces with this daring assault.
This album is a transcendent, apocalyptic tour-de-force of hatred, agony, and horror. The sound of "Unlock The Shrine" is reminiscent of some other bleak artists like Xasthur and Forgotten Tomb, with a bit of the epic feel of Nehemah thrown in. It's not straight Black Metal, as there are a lot of ambient sounds in here as well. But that is part of the coolness on this CD. Most of the time, when BM bands use too many sound effects for atmosphere, they end up being dull, but the atmospheric passages on this album only serve to heighten the cold, deathly feel of the work, and also to perfectly set off the genuine songs. "Between Bronze Walls" starts off slower, then builds to a thunderous blaze. Then, after the wasteland of "Skeleton Coast", we are treated to the full-speed assault of "Euphoria When The Bombs Fell". The moody passage of "God Sent No Sign" sets you up for the horrific, unforgettable "The Clockhand's Groaning Circles" – what a masterpiece of Black Metal that fucking song is.
The pounding, hypnotic "Procession Of Pawns" should be dull, but it only builds anticipation for the monstrous slayage of "Summer Decapitation Ritual", which starts off a blast speed, then halfway through busts out a Summoning-style march-and-pound section that left my jaw hanging in amazement. "Cellartunes" is like being trapped in a freezer for two minutes until the dragging nightmare of the title tracks destroys you. The next track is just a two-minute track of slow pounding, but you can't stop it, because right after comes the monstrous epic of "The Mine".
The sound, and the uses of sound on this disc are impressive as Hell. The vocals are double and triple-tracked, but not synched exactly, so it sounds like a chorus of screaming, growling, muttering hatred. The production is undeniably a Black Metal sound, but the lower end is huge. Meilenwald uses a thunderous synth-bass sound to underline all the atmospheric parts, and he also uses it to accent the music itself. It sounds like a goddamned battle-drum, and when he uses it to open a song, as when "Decapitation Ritual" blasts off, it sounds like the fucking world is being destroyed.
For a debut, this is just a monster album, as it demonstrates a mind totally in control of all the elements of songwriting and sound to create a bleak and crushing soundscape. I don't know if it's even possible to go anywhere after a terrific debut like this. "Unlock The Shrine" is just a monument to sound and fury, and it is just a pity that not enough people will get to hear it, or understand it even if they do. This is Black Metal for the elite. Amazing.
Originally written for www.metalcrypt.com