When played without sound, the video for “God Alone,” the first single from Altar of Plagues’ Teethed Glory and Injury, gives essentially no indication that it’s a clip for a black metal song. None of the usual tropes — corpse paint, Satan, snow-covered hinterlands — are anywhere to be found. Instead, a troupe of lithe dancers bend and contort, tumbling over one another and encircling each other in sensual, rhythmic choreography. Limbs extend. Muscles flex and pulse. And there’s more than a little skin being bared, though it’s tasteful and suggestive rather than outright explicit or vulgar. It’s more than a music video — it’s art.
Turn the sound up, however, and out comes a hefty sputter of blast beats, grindcore pummel and powerful, unrelenting force. On first listen, particularly when paired with the otherwise graceful imagery, it comes across as harsh and aggressive. But there’s a lot more going on beneath the direct assault on the senses — synthesizers, shoegaze-like guitar textures, clean-sung vocal harmonies. It takes some extra care and attention to pick up on everything that the Irish black metal band is doing here, but much like the dancers in the video clip, they’re creating their own modern metal ballet, each element playing against another in a fierce, but beautifully — yes, beautifully! — choreographed performance.
For Altar of Plagues, the expected and the traditional have little place in their music. In a recent Decibel feature, the group’s James Kelly cited artists as far-ranging as Björk, Kate Bush, Steve Reich and Richie Hawtin as major influences, stating that “we’ve been pretty open about this stuff from day one, we’ve always been clear that we’ve always been sincere about what we are and what we are about—not posturing black metal guys.” On Teethed Glory and Injury, their third full-length, that eclectic sincerity plays an even greater role than ever. From day one, the group took great strides in avoiding being another Darkthrone knockoff, and here, they’ve delivered their most diverse and nuanced set to date. It’s fairly atypical as a black metal album, of course, but it’s also much more interesting than it would have been had they toned down the more experimental elements. When Altar of Plagues try something strange or different, it can be revelatory.
In its opening track, “Mills,” Teethed Glory and Injury signals that it’s a work of artful vision and abstraction, rather than of genre exercise. Droning violins scrape up against an ominous thump of bass drum, a rumble of distorted bass, and ultimately, the track transforms into a dense, instrumental shoegaze dirge, a la Jesu. It’s the rare moment on Teethed Glory that doesn’t erupt into something more chaotic, yet it’s a harbinger of some of the bolder moves to come. There are nearly two minutes of intro to “A Body Shrouded,” all majestic and mournful blackgaze before Kelly unleashes his raw, fearsome bellow. And the eight-minute “A Remedy and A Fever” undergoes several stylistic change-ups, beginning as a terrifying Swans-like drone, maturing into a dark post-punk choir piece, crashing into vicious old-school black metal, and eventually getting lost in haunting ambience.
Wherever one song begins on Teethed Glory and Injury, it almost inevitably ends up somewhere markedly different by its conclusion. The simply incredible “Twelve Was Ruin” is almost all build and suspense, slowly crawling and pulsing like the breath of a mighty beast, edging forward with an oozing menace that explodes into a climactic rush of speed and energy in its final minute. And closer “Reflection Pulse Remains” is the album’s most soaring six minutes, utilizing more complex poly-rhythmic sequences and math-rock riffs as it escalates toward a melodic and dramatic finale that juxtaposes a similar riff motif against variations on a blast beat. It’s loud, anguished and powerful, but what’s most striking about it is just how much beauty and musicality the band fits into an otherwise harsh and confrontational form.
Where many black metal albums are bleak and soul-crushing by design, if not simply nihilistically destructive, Teethed Glory and Injury is inspirational. Altar of Plagues are operating on a unique level, twisting the shapes and textures of black metal to create something even more glorious and artful. There is certainly pain in their music, as well as brutality and terror, but they’re not making music to shut out the rest of the world — they’re making music to conquer it.