5/30/2009 - Review by: Etiam
An ultimately rewarding listen
In this age of titan revivals, Absu's return after an eight-year absence should not be especially alarming to anyone. We never had a closure when the band petered out after 'Tara', their widely-acknowledged masterwork, and main-man Proscriptor McGovern has remained active in the scene through various guest spots (The Firstborn being a very recent standout), side projects, and a handful of years spent with Melechesh. That said, Absu's eponymous resuscitation in 2009 does come a little out of the blue, both in its nature and the suddenness of its arrival via Candlelight Records. (As an aside, what a score for those British boys.)
Like other defining American acts such as Death, Annihilator, and Iced Earth, Absu's lineup has been a revolving door of session or short-lived members (with Power Ranger-villain pseudonyms). Undoubtedly, other members have long been contributing material to Absu's songwriting, and this new album features significant input from both new and erstwhile members, but McGovern has always remained the primary source of Absu's ideology and musical drive. As such, the band's comeback album continues recognizably in Absu's established vein, despite all the other members being brand new unknowns from the Texas scene. 'Absu' also features an array of guests soloists, vocalists, and even a guest lyricist from Melechesh. Ex-Mayhem guitarist Blasphemer contributes characteristically raving harmonies on a couple numbers, 'In the Name of...' features the impressive but not always fitting shredding of Michael Harris, and other soloists provide programming, background vocals, horns, etc.
'Absu's first impression is that this is the best production the band has ever had, though that technically isn't saying too much. The band apparently handled much of the tracking themselves, while mixing was done by JT Longoria, who's worked with fellow Texas residents Solitude Aeturnus and King Diamond. Proscriptor's percussion no longer sounds like it was recorded on a 1/4 scale kit, the mix is markedly more dynamic, the guitars have space to breathe, and the mastering brought the volume up to a respectable level. Also, despite the eight-year layover, Proscriptor's vocals are actually stronger than on the band's last outing. Though nearly all of his lines are delivered in similarly static patterns (for which we must cut him slack as a singing drummer), his rasps are throatier and deeper. Some may argue that he sounds less wicked and certainly less diverse with no falsettos in earshot, but at least his days as a skin-pounding gremlin are behind him. On a related note, his percussive output is a little toned down and less tom-heavy from when we last encountered him, but he still thrashes along--tossing in agitated fills and plenty of snare abuse--at tempos comparable to the olden days.
Once the new production settles in, one can focus on 'Absu's other major feature: the purported delving into psychedelia and progressive music far beyond that of past releases. Given the recent success of crossover acts like Enslaved, Ihsahn, and especially Nachtmystium ('Assassins' made them relatively mainstream darlings), perhaps Absu wanted to get in on the blackened-metal-gone-prog-party. To be fair, 'Absu' does indeed feature a fair amount of diversity, with a handful of songs spruced up through reverb-heavy leads, faintly droning riffs, intermittent strings, and even passages of Herbrand Larsen-style keyboards (Enslaved). The end of '...Of the Dead...' is the the most trippy passage, led by strobing synths and nearly a minute of pizzicato and ambient, keening violins. These strings reappear on 'Those of the Void...', for an atmospheric and largely acoustic interlude that precedes the more ravening of Harris's guest spots.
These influences are at their best when used in conjunction with (rather than in contrast to) Absu's core of 'mythological occult (black thrash) metal'. 'Sceptre Command' is a prime example, where up-tempo tremolo leads are bolstered by occasional synth, swelling reverb to emphasize a solo's end, and a descending keyboard triad that doubles the bass in rephrasing the song's defining melody. Though overall not a highly melodic album, the most significant element of 'Absu' is the inclusion of solos or lead sections that are memorable for their poignancy more than their thrashiness. In the bargain, 'Absu' loses some of the pure riff power that made 'Tara' such an unbelievable procession of headbanging classics and seems hit or miss in comparison. Also, while the new approach tallies points for tastefulness, it does lack a bit of the shredding brio that made such excerpts as the first five seconds of 'Pillars of Mercy' so instantly recognizable.
However, this debatably works to the band's advantage, if fans are patient enough to let the material sink in. With more organized compositions and a handful fewer riffs, 'Absu's songs are more structured and mature than the the hodgepodge frenzy of some previous works. Though its magic(k) is less immediately stunning than that of 'Tara', 'Absu' is an ultimately rewarding listen and a revitalizing addition to Proscriptor's discography.