Altar of Plagues made a name for themselves with 2009’s post-black metal opus “White Tomb”. The album told the tale of environmental collapse through a series of monumental peaks and nerve-racking valleys. It was a massive piece of music whose presence grasped the listener from the get go. The Irish trio’s second full length, “Mammal”, takes a more introverted but nonetheless explosive approach. Instead of vast sonic soundscapes that create an entire world, “Mammal” explores the interworking of tight-knit compositions within hollow atmospheres. The result is quite different from the debut, though equally effective.
On “Mammal”, Altar of Plagues reduces both the post-rock and black metal dimensions of their music, while increasing the amount of progressive sludge, à la Neurosis and Isis. The band sounds quite natural playing in this style. The slow tempo plus the heavy echo on the bass and guitar compliment the sludgy, atmospheric riffs. The vocals are already a cross between a hardcore grunt and a black metal scream, so they easily suit the shift in sound. No one benefits from the shift to a sludgier sound more than drummer Johnny King. “Mammal” marks a major improvement in King’s drumming, as he creates a phenomenal series of looping tribal patterns reminiscent of Neurosis records such as “Enemy of the Sun” and “Through Silver in Blood”.
Like “White Tomb”, “Mammal” consists of four long songs, ranging from 8-18 minutes. The songs bleed into each other giving the album a theatrical arc. The outer tracks are more moody and straight forward. The album opens with the dark and anxious “Neptune is Dead” and closes with tragic, dirge-like “All Life Converges to Some Center”. The middle two tracks are far more experimental and emotionally obtuse. “Feather and Bone” is a feverish piece, full of pulsating build ups, hypnotizing drum patterns and burning climaxes. “When the Sun Drowns in the Ocean” begins and ends with the sound of an old Irish woman keening (singing a Gaelic song for the dead). Between the keening passages is a mix of arrhythmic percussion and dissonant guitar progressions played at increasingly loud volumes. Overall the album feels like falling in and out of a deep trance.
In addition to impressive music, Altar of Plagues express a powerful message. "White Tomb" and "Mammal" each present us with chilling and honest depictions of the modern condition and its ultimate consequences. “White Tomb” portrays the staggering conclusion of our current lifestyle through intense depictions of social decay and environmental collapse. “Mammal” explores this same processes at the level of the individual. Ultimately, the two albums complement each other—two perspectives on the same story, two challenges to the comfort of our everyday worldview.
Overall: 8.5/ 10