Altar of Plagues morph into one strange beast on new ‘Teethed Glory and Injury’

altar of plagues
There are a lot of bands that change up their sound, and there are just as many reasons why they do it. Some bands get older and their tastes change, so that’s reflected in their music. Others do it because they want to be more accessible and sell as many records as possible, an approach that might not be the most exciting choice but makes sense from a dollars-and-cents standpoint.

Then there are bands like Irish trio Altar of Plagues, who simply grow more warped and ambitious, as they organically begin to grow into something different. Their first two records “Mammal” and “White Tomb” were sprawling, atmospheric doses of epic black metal, ambiance, and thought-provoking passages. They were often eerie and unsettling, but they were perfect if you simply wanted to stretch your mind and take in a psychological thriller disguised as an album. That pretty much changes entirely on their new record “Teethed Glory and Injury,” an album you’ll pretty much assume is different from the decidedly not-metal cover art of a dancer arched backward, her head practically touching her feet. But that black and white photo on the cover also should draw you into the record. How could you not be curious as to its contents?

altar of plagues coverAltar of Plagues have managed to make one of the strangest, most jarring extreme metal records of 2013 on their third release. It will turn your brain inside out listening to this thing, and you might not even realize it’s them if you don’t look at their name on the spine of the CD. There are more electronic elements involved this time (James Kelly certainly lets elements of his WIFE project bleed over, but not take over), the ambient haze arrives on an entirely different set of winds and weather patterns, and they show a sense of psychological menace that makes these songs the darkest of their run. It’s really hard to even describe the feeling you get from this record. I kept thinking the songs felt like one’s reaction after doing something heinous, as the perpetrator paces a dark basement or an attic trying to figure out what to do next. To escape? To snuff out one’s own flame? To do it again? There is so much here that’ll make you feel twisted and nasty inside.

Kelly leads the band, as he is your vocalist, guitarist, and keyboard player, while Dave Condon contributes bass and vocals, and Johnny King is behind the monstrous drums. The band also has chopped down their work, and instead of giving us four storybook-length songs like they did on their first two, these are nine cuts that are shorter, more urgent, more violent. But despite the band foregoing the epic route, they never cut themselves off, never cut the horror story short, and they become a completely different band under these circumstances. It’s one of the most breath-taking yet terrifying evolutions a band has ever had.

The record opens with “Mills,” a gloomy, gazey instrumental that builds over its four-plus minutes into a cascade of beats and a fevered pitch before launching right into “God Alone,” one of the most unforgettable metal songs of the year. Actually, delete metal from that sentence and it still stands. The riffs are stunted at first and churn over and over again while Kelly shrieks and wails, and as the song progresses, more and more layers come into play, making the song more complex and more terrifying. By the end, all of those levels are there to pulverize you and drag you under water with them. “A Body Shrouded” begins with a chilling sentiment, like the song could be an interlude, but then things open up, Kelly screams maniacally, and the atmosphere could suffocate you. “Burnt Year” is another scorcher, starting with WOLD-like beats and noise before the band takes devastating dives toward the ground, lurching over and over again, thrashing and bashing, adding a new entry to the definition of heavy.

“A Remedy and a Fever” trickles out of “Burnt Year,” with strange noises, Kelly howling over the madness, and weird guitar loops slipping in and making the room spin. Of course, the knives then are pounded into your chest, the crushing returns, and whirry, nightmarish ambiance takes the song to its conclusion. “Twelve Was Ruin” has more of a post-metal feel, with an exploratory guitar line snaking in and out of the song, and as the song builds, so do the layers of sound, guitar wails, and screaming. “Scald Scar of Water” has an off-kilter, black metal-style guitar line that takes the band back to sounding evil and violent, and eventually doom horns rise from the ashes, gangly riffs roll in, and sheets of clean vocals fall, making it feel like a dream state. “Found, Oval and Final” sounds a bit like a reprise of “God Alone,” with a similar style of guitar work and gurgling growls, and the record ends with “Reflection Pulse Remains,” that relies heavily on atmosphere. There is weird, cosmic blipping, tribal drums, unsettling emotions, and a colorful, wrenching finish that sounds like the band is letting their collective heart bleed out onto the floor until nothing else remains. It’s a total head rush.

This is an astonishing change of pace for Altar of Plagues, already one of the world’s finest metal bands, and it’s up to you if this sudden left turn works. It’s not like they went all Baroness and streamlined their sound. This band remains menacing, scarred, and dangerous, and it’s also clear they are one of metal’s most inventive, restless bands, never satisfied to stay in one place. “Teethed Glory and Injury” is a record that is bound to start conversations, turn people’s heads, and terrify the weak–minded. It also could be just the beginning of a stunning metamorphosis that is just in its infancy. That’s both chilling and eternally exciting, and I can’t wait to see their history unfold.

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