Sometimes critical acclaim can be the worst thing to happen to an artist. Carcass in their current guise are not so much Carcass as they are the Heartwork Appreciation Society. Varg got so caught up in his legacy that he conceived a desire to rework some of his greatest hits into the warm diarrhoea that was ‘From the Depths of Darkness’ (2011). An endeavour that all but killed whatever promise remained in post-prison Burzum as a metal project. At the Gates remain fixated and perplexed by the enduring popularity of their pop metal classic ‘Slaughter of the Soul’.
And then there’s Absu, whose last offering in their original incarnation – 2001’s ‘Tara’ – is something of a benchmark by which all blackened thrash is now judged. The esteem lavished upon this album is certainly warranted. ‘Tara’ deserves its place in metal’s hall of fame. It is one of those albums that in retrospect looks like a final send off for the glory days of the 1990s, before the confusion and embarrassment that was extreme metal in the 2000s had well and truly set in.
But for Absu themselves, it set a standard they were unable to reach again, despite trying twice upon their reformation in the late 2000s. Whatever quality was present on ’Absu’ (2009) and ‘Abzu’ (2011), they were never going to hold up to the heady earlier material. Michael Kelly and Raymond Heflin had both jumped ship, and although Proscriptor’s unmistakable skin bashing assaults and iconic vocal style were still in full view, we were back to Carcass territory again, trapped in a time loop, forced to write knockoff imitations of the glory days in a perpetual celebration of better times.
But the demise of Carcass can in part be explained by Bill Steer’s waning interest in the kind of metal he was known for. Steer was not the first metalhead to jump ship nor will he be the last. But the problem is not so much abandoning the vessel as it is half arsing it, and winding up straddled across two shipping lanes, refusing to commit to either course. The death ‘n’ roll elements of ‘Swansong’ were a last-ditch attempt to reconcile his newfound interest in classic rock whilst retaining the Carcass brand, needless to say it did not succeed. Far more sincere is his work with actual rock band Gentlemans Pistols, which he joined in 2009. A cynic, therefore, might say that the reformation of Carcass around the same time in the late 2000s was a disingenuous attempt to cash in on the newfound appetite for old school death metal that was taking root at the time.
Some gigs and much fun were certainly had as a result of this reformation. But Bill Steer and Jeff Walker themselves had long since lost any genuine interest in Carcass as an artistic entity. So if they’d left it at some happy tours there’d be nothing else to add. But they didn’t. In spite of the obvious artistic limits of the Carcass roadshow, they set their sights on the loftier goal of a new album. The flat and lacklustre hybrid of ‘Necroticism’ and ‘Heartwork’ that resulted in the form of 2013’s ‘Surgical Steel’ looks inevitable in hindsight, and only further validated the cynic. These musicians were not interested in the idea of what Carcass was or could be again, they were only interested in cryogenically freezing Carcass as they were in 1993 at the height of their powers.
And Carcass were far from unique in this regard. The innocent fun that can be had from reunion gigs, introducing new fans and reuniting old, can quickly turn sour when these artists dust off their lyric books, and attempt to recapture the magic. Even Justin Broadrick, famed for his lack of sentiment toward Godflesh’s most revered albums, the industrial metal genre he helped to create, or even guitar based music itself, even he seemed to fall for the tribute act fever that had gripped metal. The early Godflesh cliché ridden ‘A World Lit Only by Fire’ (2014) soon followed. Although admittedly he quickly smelt the rats crawling over this particular cheese, and offered a hasty course correction in ‘Post Self’ (2017), which was a far more sincere and interesting album precisely because it pandered to nothing save our purest artistic curiosity.
This last point needs to be reiterated, because it’s not the fact that older artists are daring to reform and put out new material that’s at issue, it’s that the new material is not new, it’s a sleight of hand reaffirmation of the past, an eternal return with nothing remotely novel to offer beneath all the fanfare.
By the time Absu got in on the act, a significant portion of metal’s fanbase had caught on to the shallow appeals of revivalism. But whilst everyone was pointing out that their newer offerings didn’t square up to ‘Tara’, no one seemed to be asking why they should even be bothering. Carcass chased the ‘Heartwork’ buck for…bucks, and were rewarded accordingly, but Absu in their original guise remained a more artistically legitimate beast for a far longer period than Carcass could ever manage. Their first three albums offered many creative and rarely imitated takes on black metal. The menacing occultism of ‘Barathrum: V.I.T.R.I.O.L.’, the epic and cinematic high fantasy of ‘The Sun of Tiphareth’, or the galloping barbarism of ‘The Third Storm of Cythrául’. The point is not that Proscriptor should simply be mining these albums for ideas and offer equally pale imitations as he did for ‘Tara’. It’s that this pony is clearly capable of more than one trick, so why is it still trying to perfect the already perfect?
And so, with Groundhog Day malaise we turn to Proscriptor McGovern’s Apsu, and their thankfully self-titled debut (‘Afsu’ is just an ill-advised creative decision away, and no, I don’t care what branch of esoteric Sumerian mythology Proscriptor is ransacking for lyrics this time around). And by this point it really does feel like we’re running out of things to talk about with the Proscriptor formula.
Dense, chromatic blackened thrash flies by, assaulted as ever by Proscriptor’s ADHD drum philosophy. No tempo, riff, chord, or note is settled on for more than a handful of bars. Occasional bursts of melody will jump out of the fray, but these seem less inclined to muster this chaotic and disjointed barrage into a cohesive musical unit than ever before. Any good ideas that are packed within this overwhelming barrage of sensory stimulation are introduced without context and abandoned just as quickly.
As grammar stretching track names such as ‘Esoterically Excoriating the Exoteric’, ‘In-Betweeness, Gateway Commuters’, or ‘Every Watchtower Within Is the Axis of a Watchtower Without Including Totemic Thresholds’ breeze by with ever more convoluted logic we cannot help but lament. This is far from the worst thing you’ll hear this year. And as far as the Absu style circa ‘Tara’ is concerned it’s fairly solid. But given that ‘Tara’ had tension, logic, structure, and teleology baked into every fibre of its being one cannot help but notice the lack of these elements here.
We must lament because Absu were a truly unique iteration of USBM, and that legacy extends well beyond that one album from 2001 that their recent incarnations seem intent on raiding for spare parts. We must lament that it took a decade to put this album together (personal drama and other projects aside), and this is the best it amounted to. And we must lament that Proscriptor – who remains a pillar of extreme metal and one of the finest drummers in the scene, not to mention the fact that Dimitrios Dorian of Zemial also leant his unique musical mind to these tracks as well – has been reduced to the same historical appreciation society act that persistently obsesses so many branches of metal recently.
And this self-indulgent naval gazing is the crux of the issue really. If you liked Absu’s last two albums, you will find more of the same in ‘Proscriptor McGovern’s Apsû’. We liked that thing you did, we’ll have another one of those please.
I don’t write this out of a sense of disappointment or betrayal, we’re well past that by now. It’s more the fact that this phenomenon needs to be called out for what it is: a feedback loop that paralyses both artist and fan into stagnation, creating and consuming the same fixed moment in history over and over again, wishing that time could be forever frozen on that day when your favourite album came out.
We could shrug at ‘Proscriptor McGovern’s Apsû’ as we have done at so many releases in the last decade, and say it’s not the worst thing in the world, solid album if you like the style. Or we could start asking for more, and calling out the bullshit before we drown in it.