The path of Imperial Triumphant has been a curious one. From their earlier, more conventional black metal days, the group would evolve by slowly adding in avant-garde and progressive elements, shifting their overall sound from a neoclassical second wave black metal to one that was more seasick, queasy, lurching. Over time, they would gradually lean more on their jazz influences, being astute New York music listeners, branching out from the expected black metal fusions of free jazz to more orchestrated, almost big band arrangements and influences. But they would, it turned out, grow out of this phase as well, with their previous record Alphaville feeling often more like a modern extremist replica of Mr. Bungle’s iconic sound than one directly tied to the lineage of black metal, avant-garde or otherwise. This point of comparison came easy, of course, when the group featured Trey Spruance of that legendary group (and a number of other superlative avant-rock groups as well) as a guest on the album; in turn, it was the best record the band had produced up to that point.
Where those previous records felt strongly generational, suffused with a strong lineage and sense of progression album to album, they also felt germinal. Each stab at a new sonic space, while compelling, felt always like a step toward something else, a space to be departed from rather than a space to remain within. It felt like they were finally approaching home. On Spirit of Ecstasy, it finally feels like they’ve arrived. (I await, of course, for this to be proven wrong by yet another seismic shift in the direction and scope of the band on whatever comes next.) Spirit of Ecstasy seizes upon the sonic freedom afford by the unique avant-garde/experimental/progressive hybrid of the school of Mr. Bungle the band explored previously but, much like all great adherents of that mode of thought (and rather unlike its weaker adherents), this was clearly a doorway toward greater freedom rather than a specific sonic template to follow rigorously. On Ecstasy, black metal makes a major return in the overall sonic makeup but, much like Ihsahn and Enslaved’s later period, feels like a mere ingredient in the pot rather than the primary driving force. One can likely attribute this to how comfortable and successful they have found themselves outside of the bounds of black metal; it is no longer a step backward to incorporate it again but instead the returning use of a once-favored muscle group.
The presence of death metal is greatly increased on this record, pulling from the viscera-wet and dripping school of the style. But this is balanced against a Voivodian sense of terse prog rhythms and a distinctly Barrett-era Pink Floyd approach to harmony, heavy on chromaticism that feels more like a bad acid trip than something as contrived as what a great deal of black metal does with the style. The presence of Snake from Voivod, not to mention the legendary Kenny G, feel now more even-footed than previous guest appearances; no longer are these means to justify the position of the band in relation to various musical spaces but instead earned collaborations with greats of their field. The presence of Kenny G on “Merkurius Gilded,” it should be noted, will either read as stunt casting to some or a wise sign of musical diversification; regardless, those are meta-concerns, ones beyond his contribution to the song present, which is a satisfyingly slick and energetic soprano sax performance, underscoring the eerie and uncanny sense of opulence the group has strived for for quite some time. His reputation in certain jazz circles may be suspect, but trust you me: Kenny G can play his fucking ass off and his wise musical contributions here fit hand-in-glove with the overall aesthetic project Imperial Triumphant have been pursuing with ever-increasing accuracy since Abyssal Gods.
One could quibble about the length of this record. Its eight tracks are stuffed to the gills with musical ideas, not to mention an average runtime sitting close to 7 minutes. The amount to digest here is not unlike any given Tool record or Flower Kings album, where between the length and convoluted and progressive structures of the pieces wind up being sensory overload. However, given the richness of each of these tracks, it only feels like more of a great meal to savor, one where patience is greatly rewarded. It was only around my third or fourth listen that I was able to competently follow the twists and turns of each of these tracks; by the sixth, I was fully immersed in the demented melted-candle bad-acid extreme surf rock. For those who have hated and will continue to hate this band, I have bad news: expect this on many year-end lists. For those who enjoy this type of work, we can only surmise what new element the band will incorporate for their next go-around or if they have, at long last, found a style worth sticking with. Given their developmental trajectory, including this excellent album, they’ve more than earned our trust.
Label: Century Media
Langdon Hickman is listening to progressive rock and death metal. He currently resides in Virginia with his partner and their two pets.