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Holy work - 94%

gasmask_colostomy, December 17th, 2018

Imagine that you can see Christ seated in front of you, legs crossed in the lotus position. Imagine that his pate opens and out of it blooms a flower with emerald leaves and fuchsia petals unfurling as you watch. When the flower has opened completely, a figure is discernible in front of the stamen, whom you recognize. That figure, upon closer inspection, is Ihsahn. Parody though that may be, those are the feelings and associations that should be stirred up while listening to Panegyrist's only album thus far, this year's Hierurgy. Apart from the exquisite artwork that inspired my little abstraction back there, I'm also excited to say that neither the band name nor album title were words previously known to me in meaning, the latter not even appearing in my dictionary. But knowing the meaning of both puts the music in context. A panegyrist is also known as a eulogist - one who writes eulogies, or panegyrics - suggesting that this musical project was assembled to praise something. Hierurgy, as the group's Bandcamp page nobly informs me, is a ritual, or literally 'holy work': therefore, a holy work created by ones who write in praise. This is a black metal album dedicated to God.

Some may deem a religious inclination enough to call Hierurgy avant-garde, though rest assured that this also seeks out the epithet in a compositional sense. Listening to a song like 'To Quicken Stone', one would feel that black metal is becoming unknown as the music progresses, the familiar dissonance of the riffing stirring emotions that have little to do with hate, scorn, or isolation when compared to other bands, almost as though the tapes on which the song is recorded were melting. I'm reminded most strongly not of Darkthrone or Burzum or Enslaved - not of any band at all, in fact - but of old films like Citizen Kane and the oldest, silent movie version of Nosferatu that seemed able to ghost right through the listener with their sense of unease and unnaturalness, be that in the soundtrack or the slightly wobbly pictures. Several of the set of riffs on 'To Quicken Stone' imbue me with a dismal feeling that is even harder to shake when clean guitars begin to flit around, casting shadows on usually blank walls and tugging at memories in the same way as the infamous "Rosebud" reveal at the denouement of Citizen Kane.

A description like that may seem to shy away from the point of a music review, so I should make it clear that not all of Hierurgy is involved in such evocative rearrangings of typical black metal tropes. Indeed, 'Idylls of the Cave' makes for a positively puritan approach to the tremolo riffing of the second wave at moments, even allowing a very low croaking Abbath-like vocal to dwell behind some of the knottier progressions, though fans of purity in the style will be revolted by the dangerously gentle vocals that float over the blastbeat battery in a manner not dissimilar to Garm's cleans on Bergtatt. However, to merely represent Elijah Tamu's vocals as "clean" gives the wrong impression: the voice that greets listeners at the commencement of 'Idylls of the Cave' is angelic and billowing in the manner befitting a choirboy, which also summarizes the overriding feeling regarding the brief opener 'Hymn of Inversion' - that it is indeed a hymn in the typical sense. More voices turn up during the recording, some of which are provided by David Cramer, who also wafts gentle keys over the twisting compositions.

Much more than the vocals or the keys, though, the guitars leave their mark across Hierurgy like grace finding a troubled soul. The complexity of some of the riffing seems staggering, particularly accounting for how regularly the choice of notes takes me by surprise, which is to say that five full songs are plenty to digest in one listen, even when marking out 'The Void Is the Heart of the Flame' as part interlude and part downbeat transition. That shorter piece manages its own kind of Pink Floyd introspection, gradually generating a glowering tremolo ambience and downplayed blastbeat accompaniment as if the words "Pink Floyd" and "blastbeat" had always been natural companions. I don't wish to spoil all the surprises that Hierurgy has to offer, though I suspect I would find myself lacking the means of relating the way that the title track magnifies the possibilities of the already dazzling melodic beauty gifted to the listener by 'Ophidian Crucifix', or just how much deeper I'm drawn into the experience by each subsequent listen.

Few bands exist who can offer up what Panegyrist have here on their debut, much less first-time performers like those who seem to make up the cast of Hierurgy, on whom biographical details are scant. The utterly gaping arms of black metal that are exposed on this album seem to contract to the tightest of fists when approached by the orthodoxy, though those familiar with Sigh and Ihsahn might get to grips with the musical richness quicker than others and fall into that wide embrace with ease and certainty. Rarely do I feel about any album that the true essence of the music needs a pursuit on behalf of the listener, yet 44 minutes proves sufficient for Panegyrist to lead me wildly searching for the meaning behind the riffs. Hierurgy is most definitely a holy work of the first degree.