On previous albums, Black Anvil’s blackened thrash always seemed to fall into a state of limbo. Triumvirate hit the black-thrash-for-the-masses nail on the head, but for what little progressive tendencies they exhibited (to be honest, this is definitely more Metallica-level progressivism than it is Dream Theater), it lacked the dynamism to make it truly interesting. They might as well have gone the route of a band like Skeletonwitch and cut the fat entirely in favor of a more lean and mean approach. In comparison, Hail Death felt like an overcompensation. More Watain-like in terms of progressive arrangements, the experimentation was worthwhile, but the record was hampered by too many forgettable moments, leading to inflated songs that felt like they were long for the sake of being long. While both albums are still damn good in their own right, it felt like the band had yet to find the balance that would showcase them at their best. As Was mostly reconciles this imbalance, and also brings some interesting new elements into the fold.
Contrary to what the album art may lead you to believe, this isn’t a black metal record. While everything is framed up and supported by elements of black metal, As Was plays more like a classic metal album of yesteryear than the wintry expeditions we’ve come to know and love. On some level, this record feels like it’s a subversive reaction against the tropes of the genre as much as it’s paying homage to them. It’s on a similar plane as Tribulation’s Children of the Night, filtering traditional metal and prog through a blackened lens with savvy attention to melody – there’s still blistering tremolos, blast beats, and ghoulish croaks, but there’s also airy clean vocals, enchanting melodies, arena-sized hooks, and bedazzling cockrockin’ solos. Careful sequencing slyly eases listeners from the sable torrential grind of opener “On Forgotten Ways” to the radio-friendly closing anthem “Ultra.”
It’s an ideal example of a two-sided listen, suited perfectly for today’s quasi-mainstream vinyl era. The first half features a number of surprises (mostly of the catchy variety), but it’s largely what you’d expect from a forward-thinking black metal act. It’s all very well-balanced, for every whistle-along lead and catchy hook there’s a hellacious and grim counterpart, including some of the band’s most relentless material to date. The titular track homogenizes these features into a seamless and even composition. A palm muted march swells and subsides before exploding into a giant sludgy riff that cleanly dissolves into a glassy bridge that wouldn’t be out of place on the Singles movie soundtrack. Clean vocals are offset by a croaky support, but it feels so innate and adds valuable depth not found in a singular bestial bark. The second half is when purists, if they’ve somehow made it this far, will throw up their arms in disgust and miss out on some of the band’s most interesting experiments. Skewing further away from conventional black metal, Black Anvil reinterpret rather than revisit timeless sounds. On “As An Elder Learned Anew,” a Judas Priest style loose and jangly old-school headbanger is shaded with barbaric vocals. “Two Keys: Here’s the Lock” has the band infusing more of this golden-era metal with both Pink Floyd inspired psychedelics and some blackened detours. It makes for a fleeting listen though it’s the longest composition of the record.
As Was is like KISS without the corpse paint, er, makeup in the sense that there’s a decidedly human element on display, not just some demonic facade. Pushing this vibe is the vocals, often densely layered and intricately arranged with haunting cleans. They’re unexpectedly top-notch, and create much of the record’s personality and relatability. It’s as if Ancient VVisdom gave up the acoustic shtick, plugged in, and went balls out, grasping onto something close to the contemplative and morose vibes of 90s grunge acts, layered with spite-drenched vocals lurking in the background, or at least around every corner. It allows the band much more freedom in songwriting as they’re seemingly unable to paint themselves into a corner, moving from blazing verses to ethereal bridges to giant soaring choruses to flamboyant solos without the slightest awkwardness. The rest of the mix is also fantastic; the drums are as cavernous and dismal as they are ready for Tommy Lee’s drum rollercoaster. The bass cuts through clearly and powerfully, nicely complementing the massive drums and the fierce buzz of the guitars. It’s hard not to think about how great this material could sound live. From the Astronoid-ian measures of hearty double kick flurries dusted with dreamy atmospheres to the charred and brazen fist-pumping hellscapes, there’s little doubt that these will take on a life of their own, but they’ll also nicely supplement their back catalog.
As impressive as As Was is, the album isn’t without its flaws. Many of the album’s songs hover close to the seven-minute mark, and while most don’t feel exceedingly long, they could still benefit from a bit of concision. A shortened verse here and there could give the record more appeal outside of a front-to-back listen, but it plays best as a complete work. Acoustic instrumental track “The Way of All Flesh” feels a bit superfluous (especially after the nine-minute sprawl that precedes it), and minus the fact that it segues nicely into “Ultra,” it would’ve probably worked better as a Metallica-esque album opener. With As Was, Black Anvil are again in some weird limbo. This time it’s not for being too much or too little of anything, but instead it’s because they’re now in the middle of these strange dichotomies now that their accessibility has been cranked up as a result of refined songwriting and a lethal sense of melody. They’ve created an ambiguous blackened metal record that’s somehow suitable for the masses while still appealing to those sensitive to sunlight. It’s all a bit oxymoronic, but it works in a beautifully disgusting manner.
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As Was was released on January 13th via Relapse Records. Head on over to the band’s Bandcamp above to purchase it!