I’m not exactly unveiling a deep or hidden truth when I say that the occult has been one of – if not the – most prevailing lyrical themes of metal music since its inception. In fact, I’m pretty sure being a metal band and not having at least one song about Satanism is illegal in Scandinavian countries. The thought of some great Biblical evil, something lurking beyond our perception to which we owe fealty should we wish to channel its grimness into the world, clearly fits into the dark and aggressive schema of metal. Its inversion, uh, not so much. Outside of the “Christcore” scene – and especially in more extreme circles – worshiping God through metal is pretty much entirely taboo, and most of the bands that choose these interpretations end up being laughably bad.
These overarching trends in metal can lead one to a dangerous and incorrect presumption: metal as an act of worship is always without success. Indeed, there’s not a lot of good Christian extreme metal, don’t get me wrong, but it’s silly to assume that there’s some linkage between Christianity and making bad metal. In the especially dark world of underground avant-garde/progressive black metal, along comes Panegyrist to shed some of the Lord’s light and make known that it is possible, in fact, to channel such a dark genre into a form of worship.
It’s actually not nearly as big of a step as one might think. Bands like Akhlys and Aosoth, and Dodheimsgard on their most recent outing, A Umbra Omega, have thrived on compositions that inspire a sense of celestial awe and existential annihilation in the face of something enormous and ultimately unknowable, and all Panegyrist band leader Elijah Tamu has to really do in order to transfer this into a manner of deific celebration was flip the emotion invoked on its head into a positive sense of sublimity. Musically, Hierurgy invokes shades of the previous bands mentioned, to be sure, but it draws much stronger comparisons to the stylings of Arcturus, especially with its off-kilter clean singing and interplay between bass, guitar, and keys, and quasi-liturgical classic doom metal bands like Candlemass or even Atlantean Kodex. To be sure, it’s excellent at wrapping up the grandeur the latter invokes in the snaking, anything-goes black metal of the former. It’s a combination of sounds that doesn’t always land exactly as it wants to, and the approach can feel somewhat stilted by a slightly navel-gazing perspective of personal worship, but when it does find the middle ground of being grandiose without melodramatic and awe-inspiring yet not overbearing, Hierurgy is an intoxicating musical vision that demands rapt attention, and for good reason.
At its best, Hierurgy is an uplifting and beautiful album, one that shines in its glory and exaltation, but at its worst, it feels like exactly the chore to listen to that one imagines an overwhelming amount of Christian black metal must be. That being said, those low points are few and far between – especially impressive considering this is the debut album from Panegyrist. Not everything on Hierurgy flies quite as high as it wants to, but man, when this album gets going, it really, really soars.
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Hierurgy is out now through I, Voidhanger Records. You can check it out on the label’s bandcamp page.