Nobody thinks of rock as the devil’s music anymore, though to be honest, by the time I was born in the ’80s, such a notion was already woefully antiquated. That’s too bad; part of what made rock `n’ roll so exciting in its various evolutionary phases (metal being a large part of that) was that there was some element of sin and of danger. And, barring some more extreme, subsequent actors (black metal’s second wave, for instance), no decade stands out for being more evil or supernaturally inclined than the 1970s. This is the decade that spawned heavy metal, with the sound of Black Sabbath’s ominous debut soundtracking a psychedelic black mass, and Alice Cooper giving rock `n’ roll its first truly admirable villain. What’s more, Jimmy Page’s fascination with the occult led him to buy a prime piece of Aleister Crowley real estate.
Less widely publicized but more materially concerned with matters of darkness was a league of primarily British psychedelic acts that came to be known as `occult rock.’ The best known of these was Coven, whose hit “One Tin Soldier” from Billy Jack is a bit of a far cry from their more explicitly Satanic debut, Witchcraft Destroys Minds & Reaps Souls. And there were plenty of others — Black Widow, Comus and Italy’s Jacula, whose debut, supposedly only distributed to occult leaders, has become something of an urban legend whose authenticity has been widely questioned — though the very obscurity surrounding such a scene has relegated its status to practically nonexistent in contemporary pop culture consciousness. However, the theatricality of recent acts like Sweden’s Ghost serve to remind listeners that choosing the Left Hand Path can actually be great fun. And Brooklyn’s Occultation, whose guitarist EMM has built up some black metal credentials in Negative Plane, takes that occult fascination a step further by actually making the music sound evil.
Occultation’s Profound Lore debut Three & Seven, whose title is a reference to the mystical qualities often attributed with the two numbers, is an enchanting and curious relic. It’s an album whose melodies aren’t by any means crushing or abrasive, and actually quite stunning in an atypical way, and probably best experienced late at night in a foggy moor with candles, red wine and the blood of the pure (or more wine, whatever). Most importantly, it evokes the kind of darkness and mystery that rock `n’ roll hasn’t really had for a long time, and funnels it through melodies that are as much an experience in channeling true darkness as they are a satisfying rock statement.
In spite of their connection to the black metal world, Occultation is more of a progressive rock act than anything else. The melodic, ascending riffs that open leadoff track “The Sea of Snakes and Souls,” combined with a bassline dropping toward the deepest corners of Hades, and an abrupt change of tempo, put the song somewhere between King Crimson and Black Sabbath, albeit with vocals provided by Grace Slick’s evil twin. At times these progressive tendencies can be a bit disorienting; “Shroud of Sorrows” and “Dreamland in Flames” tend to get lost in the sheer wickedness of EMM’s riffs. But when a bit more focused, the sound of Three & Seven can be harrowing in the most enjoyable way. In particular, “Living Portrait” stands out for the band’s embrace of a more straightforward intro, zooming through hell into a darkened, slower midsection, and blazing with the same speed and intensity with which it began. And the relatively brief, closing title track is a ghostly expression of restraint, the band’s evil vibes reverberating in an ambient intro that soon becomes interrupted by a blast of speed and energy that’s more punk rock than any other track here.
Living in a society more accepting of the indulgences of rock music is better for everyone involved, but it’s easy to celebrate a band whose sole purpose is to tap into a sound that serves to remind the listener of something unexplained, creepy, even (gasp!) evil. Occultation’s Three & Seven is largely a work of chilling and spooky atmosphere, though their songs are intricate and engaging throughout. What sticks around afterward is that feeling of having experienced something strange and unsettling, like seeing a ghost perhaps. Yet while a medium might be required to call up an apparition for repeat visits, the demons on this album can be summoned at will.
Black Sabbath – Black Sabbath
Goblin – Profondo Rosso
King Crimson – Red
Stream: Occultation – “Living Portrait”
Jeff Terich is the founder and editor of Treble. He's been writing about music for 20 years and has been published at American Songwriter, Bandcamp Daily, Reverb, Spin, Stereogum, uDiscoverMusic, VinylMePlease and some others that he's forgetting right now. He's still not tired of it.