Part of what makes metal – slower metal, in particular – such a compelling force to investigate within today’s experimentation-driven musical landscape is that when a band tends to go for a longer record, a coupling of sounds must occur. That is to say, abrasion on its own is no longer (nor has it ever been, really) enough for a band to create an engaging 45 minutes to over an hour of music. Bands must achieve a combination of elements that all lead to a creative, unique, and attention-holding sound through a delicate balancing act or be relinquished into a vacuum of mediocrity that is nigh impossible to escape. Riffs blend together, vocals lose their punch, drums sound stale and the entire thing collapses in an elaborate maze, never to be fully explored by an listener. Even the most avid of metal fans simply fall to the wayside in the wake of such repetition, meant to be crushing but ultimately just redundant. One must harness variance, expounding on original ideas in new and interesting ways.
Listening to Inter Arma‘s previous works, it’s plain to see that they know this and gleefully take their part in this paradigm: winding passages of blackened sludge give way to bouts of thick, smoky psychedelia, creating an environment that takes the listener over stormy seas before leading them directly into the stoner’s den. Tinges of drone rock and doom metal creep in, forming a sort of meditative atmosphere that is equal parts pummeling and relaxed, lush in its composition, spacey and grand in its execution. The truly beautiful The Paradise Gallows, the Virginia-based group’s third LP, comes to fruition in the way the band bring together the pulverizing heaviness of slow metal with the softer side of psychedelic rock.
If you imagine oppressiveness as an elemental force, you’d be hard pressed to assign it just one metaphor. This is the problem that many music critics face: guitar lines, drums and harsh vocals are either earthquakes or storms, fire or ice or metal. In truth however, good, oppressive music attacks from all sides. By creating a mercurial experience, one which is hard to pin down, clever metal can offer a cornucopia of paranoias, distresses and mental states. Such is the case with The Paradise Gallows. While the earth rumbles and rolls deep below your feet, and you struggle to regain your balance and to make sense of what has just transpired, Inter Arma strike from the air, with an ethereal and all-encompassing, psychedelic edge.
Instead of just constantly pummeling you into the ground like so many single minded bands, here the pressure is eased in favor of delirium. The fittingly epic introduction to the album, “Nomini” sets the stage with a guitar lead that is both soaring and searing, burning bright and hot into the listener’s ears before bleeding into “An Archer in the Emptiness,” a Gorgutsian opus that showcases a sprawling and parched desert of dry guitar leads and embattled percussion, a constant battle through blinding sun and heat-baked dirt. Here, Inter Arma presents their darker side as they move through a grim suite of sounds ranging from aggressive black metal to crawling, ominous doom, all for the purpose of showing exactly the environment they’re going to move the listener through across the course of the album. Barely any of their classicist-tinged pomp and psychedelia is to be found on the track.
Then, however, we move into “Transfiguration”, which stands in a direct contrast to its predecessor. Where “An Archer in the Emptiness” is all seething fury and gnashing teeth, “Transfiguration” is the grin of a vulture: taking its damn time, it creeps up on you with its sonorous riffs, more growing, suffocating humidity than crashing wave. Smack in its middle lies a nadir of passion and hate, one of the heaviest passages that Inter Arma have ever written. The vocals climb high and echo in feverish pitch while the drums and guitar shred the lower parts of the aural spectrum. This is the wave smacking down but it’s walled in by the passages that came before and after it.
The slowness, the deceptive quiet, they are all part of the predator’s tools here. It is no accident that the album is walled as well. With “Nomini” on one side and “Where the Earth Meets the Sky” on the other, there’s no doubt as to the important place psychedelia plays in the minds and compositions of Inter Arma. However, it isn’t just regulated to the sidelines, it’s found within internal tracks, weight bearers that lend the album gravitas like structural pillars. In “Transfiguration”, in the title track’s molasses contemplation and in the returning theme of “Potomac”, injecting “Nomini” right into the mix, we find psychedelia married to the rolling, caustic heaviness of the darker passages. Penultimate song “Violent Constellations” illustrates this grafting of the two worlds in a perfect fashion; with little notice the track switches between lurching, spasmodic sludge grooves and crushing blasts of black metal, the vocals accompanying the changing winds with either throaty, reverberating yells or dry howls. It moves into bits of Krallice-esque dissonance at times, taking a cue from Colin Marston‘s playbook on how to properly disorient the listener for maximum effect.
To borrow a phrase from Latin, perhaps the most apt way to describe any Inter Arma track is “crescit eundo,” or in the English, “it grows as it goes.” The power of their combination is enough to vault them into good standing, to be sure. But for them to achieve excellence, it has taken the skill in bringing the two worlds together in a fashion where both benefit from their symbiotic nature instead of merely coexisting. The fusion achieved through an intertwined balance is what makes this album as engaging as it is: where the black metal fury ends, the lethargic, droning sludge is quick to take over and sooth the listener into a pulsing rhythm before shaking one back out of the trance with another bombardment of caustic, fiery aggression. Truly, each track grows as it goes, finding strength in its diversity and a sense of purpose in further bringing the listener closer to the culminating artistic vision of the minds behind the music.
This has always been the crowning glory of Inter Arma, the elixir which made them so compelling. With The Paradise Gallows, they have perfected that art and wield it with extreme skill, ducking and weaving as they go after your heart, mind and guts. It’s what progressive sludge is all about and exactly what makes it progressive. Inter Arma might make it seem easy but the halting momentum, the return to fury, and the understanding that weight can come in many forms are all elusive techniques and knowledge. With this album, Inter Arma have woven all of those and more into one of the most complete and expansive albums of not only their home genre, but the sphere of modern metal in general. The result is an album which surrounds you and holds you in place even as it jostles you around, like a storm rolled into an earthquake or a volcano erupting within an absolute void.