First of all, don’t buy this album unless you are fully prepared to sit down and actually listen to it. This is not ambient background music in any form; this new masterpiece from Southern Lord is carefully constructed to envelop the listener within its layers of sound. Also remember that this album has been made to listen to at high volumes on a quality stereo, or on high-quality earphones. This album is flawless in my opinion, and has been released with a measure of artistic vision and care that says much about the aims of the two respective bands.
“Altar” is a very appropriate title for the work, as every track within the album oozes with reverence for the Almighty Sound Wave. With each movement within each track, a new depth unveils itself with a unique personality. There seem to be distinct tones and methods of delivery for each member within this collaborative project.
The first track, “Etna” is a behemoth of a song, that while carrying an extremely dark, crushing overtone to its construction still manages to sound empowering in some way, or motivational. It begins with what sound like layers of distorted bass cellos and other strings, and then intensifies with the arrival of Anderson and O’Malley’s droning guitars and a dynamic drum solo by Atsuo, the conclusion of which kicks off a mind-blowing, doom-emanating riff with Wata’s errie, wailing guitars providing a startling high-end to a very deep track. “Etna” concludes with a minute or two of intense guitar feedback, before slicing off and entering the second “track”.
“N.L.T” seems to be an afterthought to “Etna”, if you were to view the album as a whole from a narrative sense. It begins with a droning bowed upright bass impossibly down-tuned, and proceeds through the song with layers of similar sound without any major alterations in the song structure. There are drums on this track, but they are hardly used to keep any sort of time. They are a succession of rapid cymbal and gong rolls that seem to move from back to front. The entire track gives off a very natural, acoustic vibe, but still manages to be as intense as “Etna” is. The song heavily suggests downward motion to me, as through the listener is being drawn into the depths of some endless chasm by the sheer will of Sound.
“The Sinking Belle (Blue Sheep)” is a disarmingly relaxing track that smoothes off the tension and intensity of the previous two songs, marking a midway-point in the album. It is composed of dreamy, reverb-laden clean guitars and quiet, careful drumming. Accentuating the framework of the song are atmospheric “space-echo” guitars and piano. This is the first track on the album to feature vocals, which are near-whispered with a trembling quality by folk-singer Jesse Sykes. The relaxed, more conventional feel of “Belle” may seem a bit out of place in the album as a whole, but it is made in a way that seems natural doesn’t break the continuity of the album’s progression.
“Akuma no Kuma” revisits the triumphant approach that “Etna” opens the album with, featuring epic synth, bass and guitars that seem to be configured with a rolling-modulation, and contains an almost bombastic feel, the sensation of which is increased by the emergence of electronic horns which recall a stereotypical old-Hollywood ancient-Rome feel to them. The voice of Joe Preston of Thrones, Earth and High on Fire fame is featured on this track, his vocals translated through a vocoder synthesized to match the modulation of the synth and guitars that make up the body of the song. The song’s force and intensity rises as it progresses, and by the track’s end basically becomes the sonic equivalent of smoking Salvia.
“Fried Eagle Mind” is a drifting, unsettling track that is mostly composed of “trippy” clean guitars, ambience and softly-sung vocals by Wata, and is very unnerving for me to listen to. Where “Akuma” seems to be intended to excite and inspire the listener, “Mind” lulls the listener into a coma filled with the primal images of the sleeping mind as Wata atonally whispers “soft clouds… dream… sleep…”, before eventually dissolving into a chaotic static soup of cavernous noise.
The final track on “Altar” is called “Blood Swamp”, and features Kim Thayil of Soundgarden on guitar. “Swamp” is extremely heavy and dense in its sound, and is a roaring, unrepentant drone track with ambient overtones that is easily the most foreboding song on the album. The song sounds as though it is emanating from deep underwater, and concludes the overall experience of the album by smashing your brains and eardrums to a pulp.
I wholly believe that this album was created with the intention of being experienced, as opposed to just listened to. Southern Lord’s releases generally have a strong visual element to them, and Altar is among their finest in this respect. The limited edition release available from SL’s website includes a gatefold case with a ten-page booklet containing photographs of the two bands in black robes standing in a cornfield. Sprinkled among those are shots of cave complexes, black monoliths and some Escher-esque artwork. Additionally this version of the album includes a second disk which contains a 8-minute long drone track entitled “Her Lips Were Wet with Venom” featuring the legendary Dylan Carson of Earth doing some guitar work similar to his recent Earth release “Hex”.
This is a true synthesis between two amazing projects, and it has certainly been worth my time to sit down, kill the lights, put on headphones and absorb the Altar.