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The sound of a demented psyche collapsing. - 97%

ConorFynes, August 4th, 2015

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.