When an artist breaks the mold such as Imperial Triumphant have, there’s often a ripple effect. Yet in the wake of 2018’s Vile Luxury, few bands have achieved the grandeur and scale of Imperial Triumphant’s aural world building. Short of a handful of releases over the last few years – most notably 2019 HBIH fave White Ward, Ceremony of Silence’s sneaky-great Oútis, and this year’s head-exploding Pyrrhon record – I can’t help but feel the larger impact of that release hasn’t been fully realized. The surface has merely been scratched. To be honest, this isn’t exactly the kind of sound that’s easy to replicate or even imitate. Of course, these guys are coming from a different headspace than most. Their approach provides them an unusual perspective.
As mentioned in a recent conversation with bassist Steve Blanco, they haven’t set out to create something simply “extreme metal with jazz.” What’s here tangibly feels like an avant-garde embodiment born out of their unique backgrounds in jazz and extreme metal – it’s indisputably natural, tied to their very being. So, it can be expected that this nature informs the project not only musically, but also conceptually. How they present their art. The collaborators they choose to work with. There’s a careful attention to detail that pervades their craft. This is who they are. Fusing this forward-thinking creative freedom with technical proficiency, Imperial Triumphant again offer an original perspective, an ever-intriguing analysis of society’s horrors through their mask-shrouded eyes. In doing so, Alphaville proves that once the mold has been broken, a new standard can still be set.
Alphaville is a Twilight Zone kind of experience. For everyone who has worn out the grooves on their copies of Vile Luxury, this is sure to be familiar in many ways, but even so, everything just hits differently. In a sense, Alphaville is more approachable, the densely oppressive cacophonies have been spaced out and in the gaps between, there occur many more sparse, quiet, and restrained moments. The mix is even a little cleaner on this release, making it deceivingly easier on the ears (but you’ll definitely feel the full brunt of their attack when they reach those world-comes-crashing-down movements).
Each track exhibits a bit more patience, too. Where Vile Luxury was more forward with the aggression, Alphaville tampers the violence with atmospheric sci-fi synths, chimes, ambient detours, taiko drum breaks, and, what the hell, even a barbershop quartet. There is also more frequent use of passages where the trio is able to stretch their metaphorical legs with some relatively sparse and minimal moments (worry not, they’re often laden with the group’s signature rhythmic headfuckery). It’s palpably more eclectic and ear-turning. Take for instance the tidal swell in “Atomic Age.” It’s an exercise in masterful tension building. The first two-and-a-half minutes build to achieve a quenching plateau, but then this sudden interruption at the 3:00 mark becomes this ominous creaky door psyche-out of a build before the floor completely drops out into complete pandemonium. It’s emblematic of these little pieces carrying significantly more weight.
But as you may expect, there’s an opposite and equal reaction to this. The dense moments throughout Alphaville are heavily and intricately layered with supporting instrumentation that is quickly fleeting, often popping in for a hurried-yet-notable phrase or interjection prior to getting replaced by yet another distinct, punctuating layer. Imperial Triumphant have become busier and more densely populated than ever in these segments, yet it’s somehow a little more manageable thanks to the spotless mix. In addition to their standard noir jazz fare (which has been toned down ever so slightly), a variety of electronic textures and flourishes have been incorporated, modernizing the overall vibe and pairing nicely with the futuristic concept (the title track truly runs the gamut here).
The attention to these details shouldn’t go understated as they lend an incredible amount of character to the record. It elevates the cinematic presentation and enhances the ties to the film from which the album shares its name. The production duo of Trey Spruance and Colin Marston seem to be hellbent on maximizing the impact of every second. The arrangements are nimble and ever capable of drawing focus to their eerily delicate and reserved facets as skillfully as their most hyperactive and discordant. Not only does the push and pull of these extremes make for a variety of unexpected moments (anyone expecting to be “prepared” for this effort will be sorely mistaken), but it also gives this deceptive quality to Alphaville. Where Vile Luxury and Abyssal Gods leaned into intimidating, oppressive, and suffocating tactics, Alphaville dials the intensity back to repeatedly develop a false sense of comfort and pounce. It’s looser, freer, and more organic.
This version of Imperial Triumphant is looser, freer, more organic and off-the-cuff. The experimentation has taken this new shape, too, but it feels more under control. Zachary Ilya Ezrin’s guitar work is incredibly varied and adaptable, bounding from disparate highs like the euphoric and idyllic leads found in “Atomic Age” to the variety of curveballs and dismal, strangulating bends found in “The Greater Good,” this guy is simply all over the place, but he’s simultaneously anchoring these tunes more than in the past. In a way, this seems to free up the rhythm section for more exploratory ventures. Steve Blanco’s bass lines are more remarkable than ever, taking on an eager energy to grab some extra notes and chords from the void, manifesting some ridiculous licks on “Rotted Futures” and warping angles on “City Swine.” The jazzy, almost surfy groove on “Excelsior” paves the way for the unravelling that occurs as the track disintegrates in the closing moments. Kenny Grohowski again matches taste and intensity on the kit. Whether navigating the staggering paces found in “The Greater Good,” metering out blasts and finding that extra gear in “Atomic Age,” or managing the dissonant groove that closes out “Transmission to Mercury,” this dude is a well-oiled machine. The performances are utterly extraordinary.
If you’re going to follow up a landmark avant-garde metal release such as Vile Luxury, this is how you do it. The vast scale and rare character of this record build upon their prior releases without retreading the same ground. It’s still very much a commentary on society’s corruption, decadence, and perversion, but it’s presentation isn’t so expectedly murky and gritty. Instead it’s fresh, alien, and bizarre. This is still a distinctly Imperial Triumphant album, but yet, it’s unlike anything they’ve done before – a meticulously crafted work from beginning to end. It’s unbelievably consistent (even the covers are incredible, concurrently explaining and expanding upon the influences of Voivod and The Residents), and the polished presentation in lieu of the grime and tarnish of their previous masterwork serves listeners well. Rare are bands like Imperial Triumphant. Even rarer are albums like Alphaville.
Alphaville is available everywhere albums are sold Friday, July 31 via Century Media Records.