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Art Thou Feeling It Now, Mr Krabs - 71%

Tanuki, November 21st, 2022

Miasma, Nocturnal, Deflorate. Sounds like one hell of a honeymoon, not to mention a sensational trilogy of albums which helped prove The Black Dahlia Murder were more than just middling MySpace malarkey existing solely to give Michigan mall goths tinnitus. Though, after such an effective one-two-three punch, it's only natural to feel nervous about a band's trajectory. This is usually when they decide to get cute, experimenting with ambitious new styles and searching for a new creative thumbprint. A band's earlier output may rarely be their best, but its freedom from both preconceived expectation and internal restlessness often results in it being their most accessible and fun album. This is certainly the case with Miasma. Ritual, on the other hand, is not accessible, and only fun after you've sat on it for a good while and got to know what makes it tick.

To my ears, Ritual sounds restless and ungainly. Conceptually - less so, musically - it reminds me of South of Heaven. The searing tempest of manic barbarism isn't quite so punctual this time around, replaced by a strained bevy of atmospherics and acoustics. The most egregious example is 'Conspiring with the Damned'. It's perfectly fine for peppy slugfests to have a cooldown, so that the drummer's arms don't fall off, but this interlude just drags on forever and ever. Wispy chugs and a silly 'spooky demonic murmuring' skit bring the momentum to a jarring halt. Not to disparage bands like Alterbeast or Inferi, who I find perfectly serviceable in their own right, but this type o' thing would definitely sound more at home on one of their albums. That also applies to the strange non-sequitur thrashy elements of 'Den of the Picquerist', or the disjointed stridence of 'A Graverobber's Work', sounding so jejune alongside the tangled mess of cables that surround it.

I have no evidence to back this up, but it feels like Ritual may have originally been intended to be a concept album, but the idea fell apart, and the holes were plugged with completely unrelated carryovers. 'On Stirring Seas of Salted Blood' is the worst offender in this regard, a lumbering and elephantine composition that accomplishes about as much as Mercenary-era Bolt Thrower. Which is to say, basically nothing. It's an extensive showcase of Strnad's lower registers, though 'Their Beloved Absentee' does this much better, and the song's sudden jazzy lick-slathered solo is just bizarre. It's experimental and brave, most definitely. Ritual doesn't feel half-assed in the least, but some of the ideas fall flat. So I guess what I'm trying to say is, this album feels flat-assed.

Is Ritual broken beyond repair? Hell nah, it's not even broken. It just needs some WD40 squirted into its hinges. When this album gets it right, my goodness it's incredible. 'Carbonized in Cruciform' is a macabre neoclassical masterpiece, proffering a phenomenal riff that sounds like if you put Tankard and King Diamond in a blender. 'Blood in the Ink' is another certified hood classic, as the kids would say, with its chorus a coalition of hard-charging melody and eerie orchestral symphonia that reminded me a bit of Gates of Ishtar. Though sadly, this is yet another Dahlia tune themed around suicide. At least it only pokes some fun at the claim that metal contains subliminal psychotic messages, making this track feel like less of a cry for help. On the other hand, the album's closing words - a distorted voice informing us that suicide is the only way out - is made exceptionally painful by the untimely passing of Trevor Strnad.

And thus, we're left with an album with monstrous potential, but ended up sounding like a patchwork beast of many disparate ideas. If you level with it, and allow yourself to marinate inside its steamy grandeur for as long as it takes, you might even call it your favorite Dahlia album. It has that unnatural, quirky feel to it that makes it so mystifyingly different to the rest of their discography, kinda like Death's Sound of Perseverance or Sigh's Gallow's Gallery. It'll either be your favorite of your least favorite, with not much in between. Unless you're me, who rated it kind of average. Because I, as a music critic and as a human being in general, have no idea what I'm doing.

This review series is dedicated to the memory of Trevor Strnad.