Mournful Congregation perfect sorrowful reflection on stunning ‘The Book of Kings’

Depression can be the most destructive force on earth. Yes, we live in a world of bombs, ridiculously relaxed gun laws (at least here in the States), monstrous dictators, and pathogenic disease, but those even can pale in comparison to the darkness and sorrow that can inhibit a person’s heart and soul. It’s a prison. Even the brightest, most beautiful day can seem like hell is ravaging the planet. It can be inescapable and eroding. It is the worst.

That may not be the most alluring way to introduce a new album from one of the world’s most underrated bands, but it fits. In fact, that opening probably isn’t enough. For we’re here today to discuss Australia’s Mournful Congregation, a band that, even if you’re a happy-go-lucky soul, can leave you in the doldrums for hours. They’re that effective and that impactful delivering their brand of funeral doom, a genre that should alert you from name alone that you’re not in for party music. Unless it’s a wake you’re soundtracking, then it’s perfect. This band has been one of the finest entrants in that sub-genre ever since their formation, and now that they’ve had time to develop and find a strong label home in the States, their best days should be in front of them. Not that that’ll bring sunshine and birds to their music any time soon.

Mournful Congregation’s music may be new to some of our audience, but the band has been around since 1993, delivering a few mini-releases before offering up their first full-length, 1999’s “Tears From a Grieving Heart.” I mean, just look at that album title, and you know you’re not going to feel uplifted when it’s all over. And that’s OK. Sorrow, despair and depression are very human states. Everyone is susceptible, but we live in a culture where those things get buried under synthetic, sugary fun. It’s OK to brood and feel downright miserable at times, and Mournful Congregation always have been purveyors of such gloom. We didn’t get another full-length from the band until 2005’s eye-opening “The Monad of Creation,” though they did put out more mini-releases between complete records, and they really seemed to hit their apex on 2009’s “The June Frost.” That was until their fourth and unquestionably best record “The Book of Kings” was created, putting this band on a pedestal with some of metal’s finest acts, no matter the sub-genre. This is an arresting, blood-letting, anguished masterpiece that has a fast track toward best-of honors for 2011. It really is that amazing a piece of art.

The band – vocalist/bassist/guitarist Damon Good (Ben Newsome recently joined to take over bass duties), guitarist Justin Hartwig, drummer Adrian Bickle – sounds like they’ve discovered their sound. That’s not to suggest their previous work is incomplete or not thoroughly fleshed out, because it all works wonderfully, but they hit on something on “The Book of Kings” that takes the band from great to damn-near immortal. That’s a weird description for a band so consumed with the extinguishment of life’s flames. But it’s true, and they have created the solemn wonder we hear on this album. Now, know from the start that like most bands in this sub-genre, their songs are very, very long. They are personal exorcisms and mental torture sessions, and those types of things can’t be accomplished properly in a couple minutes. You get the idea the band poured everything they had inside of them into these songs and left no personal scars unexamined. There also are times when the band sounds unlike they ever have before, revealing a new sonic personality that completes Mournful Congregation’s make-up.

The album opens with the stunning “The Catechism of Depression,” a 20-minute lurker that’s eerie, slow-moving and death-like in its destruction. It’s an amazing composition that sounds like it can’t possibly be topped by what follows. Yet it’s only just the beginning of this cathartic ride. “The Waterless Streams” actually is, funny enough, quite watery in its approach, as the song floats along with sad guitar work, and Good’s clean, monotone warbling that sounds inspired by Tom G. Warrior. His singing is quite affecting and works wonders for the song and the rest of the material on the album. Now, it’s not that Good’s never used this approach before, but never as much and as well as he does here. “The Bitter Veils of Solemnity” is a truly interesting experiment, as it relies mostly on dark, harrowing acoustic guitar work, whispery vocals and lush synth work, qualifying itself for being dubbed beautiful. The 33-minute closing title track brings it all together, using all of the elements unveiled on the previous three songs, and taking the listener on a ride to the catacombs, with some crunchy, punishing thrashing, classic doom expression, and savagely delivered vocals that match the atmosphere. It’s an incredible record, one that blew my mind from first listen, and I was expecting to be moved before I ever encountered the record. I’ve long loved and followed this band, but I had no idea they were capable of something this mountainous and cataclysmic. It’s their high-water mark. So far.

Now, if you are new to this band, or if you’re just trying to get your hands on some of the rarities, the band has another new release (it came out in September) to satisfy your urges. “The Unspoken Hymns” is a collection of some of the band’s split efforts cuts and two new songs, one being the opening “Left Unspoken,” a new version of the song that originally appeared on the “Four Burials” release with Orthodox, Loss and Otesanak. Also included are “The Epitome of Gods and Men Alike” from the Worship split, “A Slow March to the Burial” from the Stabat Mater pairing, and “Descent of the Flames” from the Stone Wings release. It’s all capped off by a new cover of Thergothon’s “Elemental,” which they do a world of justice. This collection is a nice appetizer to let you know what you’re getting into with Mournful Congregation’s music, but remember that their new work does offer a wider range of influences and sounds. If you’re a completest, like I am, you’ll need to have this thing. But not just for the sake of buying all the band’s stuff. There are some great songs here worth their weight and your hard-earned money.

It’s high time Mournful Congregation are recognized as one of metal’s finest bands, and if “The Book of Kings” doesn’t get them that designation, then something’s wrong with the system. It’s a special, once-in-a-band’s-lifetime effort that should transcend sound boundaries and affect fans of all kinds of heavy music. It’s real, it’s raw, and it’s unapologetically sorrowful in a way that’s sometimes skin-crawling. But it’s good when music can make you feel this way, and even if you don’t exactly want to take a walk in the park when it’s done, you’ll realize you’ve gotten in touch with some darkness that needed to leak out of your veins.

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