Elagabalus- Damnatio Memoriae

By Chris Dahlberg

Published on Monday, July 13, 2015

Weird and experimental seems to be the direction I’ve gone this week, as I reviewed the latest full length from Finnish psychedelic/avant-garde black metal band Abyssion and now I’ve spent a good deal of time with the debut from Elagabalus. The Baltimore duo has been around for two years now and like Abyssion they have some roots in black metal but push off in a completely different and sometimes downright weird direction that result in a sound that feels genuinely unique. Comprised of bass, drum, and a healthy dose of synthesizers, the material on Damnatio Memoriae really pushes off into a direction that feels truly different. It may take a few times through to fully get a feel for, but those listeners that are drawn in by the more avant-garde side of the metal spectrum will find plenty to like about what Elagabalus has to offer.

It isn’t uncommon for metal that heads into psychedelic or avant-garde territory to have a looser feel to it, utilizing layers of spacey atmospherics in favor of more structured arrangements. But Elagabalus takes a different approach, as their material feels much more methodical and remains on the attack quite regularly. Right from the beginning the duo makes it clear that their sound is heading down its own path, as the combination of crunchier bass riffs and swirling synths makes it really hard to pin them down into one particular metal style. Sometimes it feels like you’re listening to constantly changing progressive rock that’s been run through a nightmarish filter, where instead of cheerful space themed synthesizers and mellower riffs there’s instead a sense of dreariness and aggression added into the melodies. Other times Elagabalus channels something like a cross between black metal’s abrasive blasting and the slower grooves of sludge/doom, only with the synth leading the way forward and twisting the familiar structures into something new. Each song on Damnatio Memoriae is a journey, as the drums and bass/synth twist and turn in a very natural manner but never stay in one place for too long. It’s because of this that the album’s likely to take a few times through to really wrap your head around, as it can be hard to pin down exactly what’s happening until you’ve spent some in-depth time with it. Admittedly with the synths dominating a good deal of the recording, there are some sections that blur together and I did find that the second half seemed to have a few more specific riffs and drum patterns that truly stood out to me but it never kept me from wanting to give this one another spin.

The instrumentals may stay right on the line between melodic and aggressive, but the vocals choose to add that extra dose of grit and intensity in the form of harsher screams. While they tend to stay at around the same general pitch for the majority of the album, that doesn’t mean that the performance feels overly static when compared to the instrumentals as the way there is a fullness to the screaming that allows it to expand over the songs and move between peak levels of intensity that grab the listener’s attention. What I like the most about Elagabalus’ vocal work is that they seem to weave in and out of the swirling mixture created by the bass and drums, often dropping out to give a particular riff or synth line the spotlight before reappearing out of nowhere. This gives it a little more unpredictability than I was initially expecting, and it works very well.

Elagabalus really seems to be doing their own thing on this full length, and it took me a little while to figure out exactly how to describe it. There are hints of black metal and sludge in here, but the weirder synthesizer melodies that drove everything forward made me kept thinking of prog rock, only mixed with a nightmarish darker tonality instead of the bright cheerfulness the genre tends to channel. I did find that there were some sections on the earlier songs that blurred together ever so slightly, mainly because of how dominant the synths are, but this never completely detracts from the listening experience and is likely to even out as the duo continues to grow as songwriters. Damnatio Memoriae’s a weird and unpredictable ride that’s going to require a bit more time than some of the other metal records out there, but give it the chance to sink its twisting and turning instrumentation into your brain and you may just find this to be one of Baltimore’s more promising acts.

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