Akercocke has always been an eclectic band. Eighteen years after the release of their debut, they're more eclectic than ever. "Renaissance In Extremis" finds their trademark pastiche of extreme metal, progressive rock, electronic textures, and moody atmospheres at its most varied and dynamic. Yet, for all of its expansiveness, there's still an evident connection with the brutish black/death metal of their early years.
Longtime fans of the band (especially their previous two albums, 2005's "Words That Go Unspoken, Deeds That Go Undone" and 2007's "Antichrist") should feel right at home. For some newcomers, this album will be an acquired taste. The opening track, "Disappear", provides a fitting introduction to the variety of sounds on display: a thrashy DM gallop gives way to a short arpeggiated section that wouldn't be out of place on a late 70s Rush album, before dropping away into a lull of clean, atmospheric guitars and delicate vocals, and then building back up into melodic lead guitar excursions that swoop and dive through tasty chord changes. Later moments on the album offer dissonant black metal, restrained background keyboards, and even a lonely beach soundscape of birds and surf. In some hands, this kind of mashup could be a recipe for confusion; not so here. The songs are held together by excellent musicianship, a strong sense of pacing, and above all by the conviction with which they're delivered.
The production is tight and clear; guitar tones breathe, with more vintage grit than crushing gain. The band is deft and energetic throughout. Engaging riffs are underpinned by thoughtful bass lines and propulsive drumming, sometimes serving as a backdrop for graceful guitar solos that never outstay their welcome. The solos themselves are a highlight of the album, tasteful and technically accomplished to a higher degree than on their previous outings.
Technicality isn't the focus here, though; the main point of this album is the passion and human drama conveyed by the vocals. Frontman Jason Mendonça's voice is one of Akercocke's most defining features, and his vocals are at their most expressive on this album - snarling growls, blackened shrieks, stentorian bellows, and strained rasps, side by side with haunting cleans, frequently bordering on frailty. The overwrought theatricality of earlier albums has given way to a genuine, sometimes intimate quality that (to my ears, at least) is more mature, and no less powerful, than anything they've done to date. This is partly due to the lyrics; the overt, religious Satanism for which Akercocke is known has been put to the side in favor of songs about loss, personal struggle, and even some kind of redemption. The subject of the lyrics isn't always obvious, but the tension between despair, anger, and perseverance is clearly drawn. It's tempting to wonder what could have inspired this internal strife, and maybe that mystery is part of the appeal.
"Renaissance In Extremis" won't connect with everyone. The frequency of apparent genre shifts may throw some listeners off, and the vocals can be polarizing. I was introduced to the band through their third album, "Choronzon", and it took me several months of on-and-off listening to finally warm up to the vocal approach. I can also see how fans of some of Akercocke's earlier material might be put off by the comparative fragility of some passages on this album. If you find yourself in any of those camps, all I can suggest is that you give this album a chance to grow.
If, on the other hand, you're like me, this album may be the unexpected comeback you didn't know you'd been wanting for the past decade. In terms of texture, tonality, and vocal approach, it picks up where "Antichrist" left off; but it's far more focused, without the miscues and dead weight that made that album feel drab after the masterful "Words...". Akercocke may have been broken up for the past ten years, but they've returned with a vital addition to their catalog, retaining the essence of their sound while pushing their own boundaries. In terms of songwriting and production, this is their "lightest" recording to date; in my opinion, it's also one of their best, and my favorite release so far this year. They lost themselves in the wilderness, and now they're back to tell us all about it. Sit down and listen.