Metal has a penchant for the transcendent. As an avid music consumer, it’s a rare occurrence for a record to stop me dead in my tracks and demand my complete, undivided attention. No working. No multitasking. No casual listening. Instead, on first listen, complete and total surrender to a wave of sounds that transport me to whichever place the music compels my mind to take me. These are moments that make drudging through hundreds of records each year completely worth it. Over the past few years, Bestia Arcana, White Ward, Imperial Triumphant, Pyrrhon, Ulcerate, and a handful of others have teleported me to their own sinister worlds, and I can now count Xazraug among their elite company.
Never heard of this project before? Neither had I until a few days ago. For those as uninitiated as I was, Xazraug is the solo project of metal god Colin Marston, whose work as a musician and producer is as clear an indicator of quality as any you will find in the extreme music world. From his work with Krallice, Gorguts, Behold… The Arctopus, Dysrhythmia, and a host of other underground projects, Marston has proven himself an infinitely capable multi-instrumentalist, fitting in wherever he is needed with consummate skill and intensity. But 2020 has been a banner year for the man. As a producer and founder of Menegroth Studious in New York, his work with Afterbirth and in forthcoming releases from Defeated Sanity, Pyrrhon, and Imperial Triumphant is nothing short of exceptional. His performances with the above-mentioned Behold… The Arctopus and Rejoice! The Light Has Come added vital contributions to already fantastic records, and have only further cemented his status as a metal treasure whose every touch brings a rich bounty of sonic gold and chaos. He hasn’t taken a misstep yet in 2020, and Xazraug’s stunning debut record Unsympathetic Empyrean may be his ultimate achievement in this already banner year.
Which, given all of the superlatives employed above, is high praise indeed. Perhaps too high. Hype can be a dangerous thing, especially when setting readers up for a record that’s description sounds far too good to be true. But rest assured that this record deserves every shred of the respect it’s being given here. A gargantuan collage of atmospheric and melodic black metal blended with an almost religious sense of vocal grandeur, there isn’t a record released this year that sounds like it. But in all of its stirring melodic and emotive tendencies, it never fails to pack a more than frightful punch, making it a beautiful marriage between black metal’s best and most disparate elements. Take opening track “Relentless Ignorance” as a full taster for what the album provides over its (nearly) hour-long run time. Setting the stage with an elegiac flood of echo-drenched choral work that sounds like it belongs in a church more than a black metal record, Marston gently unleashes beautiful sonic textures that create a very particular type of atmosphere before introducing his instrumental elements. The guitar picks up in the first few moments with Liturgy-esque transcendence, weaving its way over the top of the sonic pile, joined by distant blasts from the drum kit (more on the drum production here in a moment) and elegiac female vocals that provide some gorgeous melodies to the already illuminated musical palette. It’s an utterly entrancing start to a record that only becomes more compelling as it progresses.
One notable aspect of this record that I wasn’t sure how I felt about at first is the mix on the drums. While they sound categorically great and clear in their individual production, they feel relatively distant in the mix to me at times. Being a huge fan of pounding, cacophonous drum production in my black metal, throughout my first listen I had a distinct wish that the drums would have been a more robust presence in the mix. But as the record continued to unfold, this production choice began to make more sense to me. With breathing room left for the insane vocal gyrations found in “Grim and Unhallowed Entitlement” and the atmospheric majesty of the title track (which has an introductory horn section that feels pulled right from Colin Stetson’s soundtrack to Hereditary), the record adds emphasis to its most unique and brilliant elements without losing its sense of rhythm and propulsion. It’s a choice that may take some black metal aficionados some time to get used to, but give the record time and I feel confident that its atmosphere and mood will draw you in with vice-like power.
Outside of the uniqueness of the production, the instrumentation here is equally enigmatic and overall just stunning. Synths and keys power an atmosphere as potent as anything conjured by Alcest or Saor, but with an added shroud of mystery reminiscent of the early works of acts like The Ruins of Beverast and Wolves In the Throne Room. The bass and guitar work are without question the instrumental highlight of the record, propelling each track to incredible sonic and melodic heights. The vocal inclusions (though sparse) are utilized to grand ethereal effect, adding a sense of grandeur and a religious sense of awe to an already musically transcendent package. “Arboreal Destination” in particular incorporates these vocals to grand, quasi-tribal effect, layering in forlorn vocal passages with some of the record’s most intense and deeply chaotic songwriting. Finale “Ruinous Sepulchral Delusion” takes all of these elements and combines them into a thrillingly atmospheric opus that sends the album off in a tidal wave of emotive black metal that’s among the most epic Marston has written or performed. In all, it’s just about everything one could hope for from a Marston project and then some.
Colin Marston has proven himself time and time again to be one of the most talented, unique, and essential voices in extreme music, and Xazraug’s thrilling debut record is another sterling example of his importance to this community. If you enjoy atmospheric black metal, Marston’s other projects, or experimental music that sets the imagination aflame, you won’t find a better record released this year to transport you. Unsympathetic Empyrean is one of Marston’s most accomplished releases to date, and without question one of my favorite metal releases of the year. It’s a rare thing to find yourself fully transported by a work of art, and here’s hoping this record serves to elevate many a mind and heart during tumultuous times. Emphatically recommended.
Unsympathetic Empyrean is out now and available for purchase on Bandcamp.