The fact we’re amid a death metal renaissance has been widely covered over the last several years, and particularly the last few months. Along with our usual monthly praises in Death’s Door, sites like Bandcamp and Toilet ov Hell have recently published odes to the modern crop of death metal ingenuity. It seems like every month comes bearing a new set of ornate, bloody gems to add to genre’s treasure trove of noteworthy releases. Behind the scenes here at Heavy Blog, the death metal aficionados among us always toss around names of bands we’d like to see return with their own contribution to this trend, and up until now, Imperial Triumphant was at the top of this unofficial list for me.
Since garnering broader attention with their sophomore album Abyssal Gods (2015), the Manhattan-based blackened death metal trio had been mostly reclusive save for a short follow-up EP Celeste (2016). And while it seems logical to say Vile Luxury was worth the wait given its insane level of quality, it’s doubtful that anyone could have predicted that an album of this magnitude was what we were waiting for all this time. Instead of aiming for the top of the modern death metal pack, Imperial Triumphant have propelled themselves onto an entirely new plane of existence with a decadent, multifaceted display of compositional and performative prowess. Vile Luxury truly earns carved its place in the avant-garde metal canon.
Experimentation is very much at the core of Vile Luxury, as is an approach to songcraft from the standpoint of composition and orchestration in a grander sense. The band list modern composers and songsmiths like Krzysztof Penderecki, Dmitri Shostakovich and Scott Walker as influences, which are abundantly clear throughout the album. There are also hints of inspiration from eminent jazz releases with larger and more diverse ensembles, such as Don Cherry‘s Symphony for Improvisers, Miles Davis‘s Sketches of Spain and Cecil Taylor‘s Unit Structures. The richness of sonic influences on Vile Luxury is its greatest strength; the vast majority of the album feels like one of many genres or a synthesis of genres being stretched and shaped in ways it hasn’t quite been done before.
The trio is able to accomplish this thanks in no small part to a myriad of guest musicians. A handful of vocal guests pop up throughout the album to introduce their unique flairs, including Andromeda Anarchia, Sarai Chrzanowski, Yoshiko Ohara (Bloody Panda) and Will Smith (Artificial Brain). Perhaps more notably, the band employs a brass quintet on multiple tracks, such as the extravagant orchestral romp on album opener “Swarming Opulence.” The track is a perfect encapsulation of the band’s central theme on the album: “Chaos, menagerie, and the perils of the city clash with its reputation for majesty and extravagance. The band aim to portray the juxtaposition between high society and urban decay.”
A triumphant trumpet call on “Swarming Opulence” leads the remaining brass instrumentation through a call to arms, before unleashing a jarring, dissonant wave of blackened death upon the listener. Though I’d argue the band works from a death metal foundation built with Gorguts-brand lumber, the marriage of chaotic black metal in the vein of Deathspell Omega and grimy, suffocating death metal along the lines of Portal truly does curdle into one filthy cauldron of murk. And whereas other “avant-garde” metal bands would merely segment these orchestral and metal elements, the band brings these two worlds crashing together as the song progresses, crafting some of the most unique and challenging symphonic metal you’re likely to ever encounter.
The highlights continue to pile up as we venture further into the tracklisting. After some initial contorting blackened death, “Lower World” explodes into what could easily be the basis for a new piece of avant-garde theatre. Unhinged piano and metal battling for dominance in the midsection before breaking into a panicked chorus of vocals soaring over a driving blast beat and twisting bass notes. A wall of abrasive instrumental chaos devolves the proceedings in a truly fitting fashion. A similar narrative approach appears on “Gotham Luxe,” which boasts crushing blackened death drenched in an experimental mood, interrupted periodically with bizarre electronic effects before finally closing with dramatic piano chords that dissolve and fade into the shadows. The ominous calm bleeds perfectly into the stalking tones of “Chernobyl Blues,” which ultimately erupts into a chaotic mashing of pained vocals from Yoshiko Ohara and a swirling instrumental cacophony.
After a jazzy introduction breaks into a sudden assault on “Cosmopolis,” the subsequent interlude on “Mother Machine” feels much more like a complete foray into jazz-rock (albeit a detour into the subgenre’s darkest and most experimental depths). The band doesn’t stagnate, of course, and the goliath, penultimate track “The Filth” brings things back into the bizarre depths of blackened death. The track features perhaps the best guest vocals on the album courtesy of Andromeda Anarchia, whose operatic vocals sound like a more restrained and refined version of Diamanda Galás‘s usual stylings. Finally, “Luxury in Death” ends the album on a more striking mid-paced note, hitting a nice, off-kilter groove before crashing to a halt and drifting off into the dismal night sky overseeing the metropolis.
With Vile Luxury, Imperial Triumphant have created what can aptly be dubbed “The Shape of Skronk to Come.” Of course, the album aims for and achieves much more than the wave of dissonant death metal we’ve become accustomed to, but that’s precisely why it’s deserving of the title. Like Ornette Coleman and Refused before them, Imperial Triumphant have taken what works best about the genres they operate in and infuses this formula with elements that shouldn’t work at all. Yet, somehow, all these disparate sounds have combined into an invigorating display of thematic and sonic elements performed with a unique collection of talents. It’s hard to peg which subgenre of metal this is the album of the year for, but instead of worrying about specifics, perhaps the best course of action is to experience the latest landmark album in metal history before it becomes the next go-to source of inspiration for the next generation of bands.