Album Review: AKERCOCKE Renaissance in Extremis
It's hard to believe that there's a new Akercocke album in 2017, never mind that it's also the best progressive death metal record of the last five years.
There's been no shortage of acclaimed metal bands recently reuniting to put out out killer material, but nobody could have predicted that Akercocke's surprise comeback after years of inactivity would result in an album of this jaw dropping magnitude. Though hardly a fringe band in the industry, “Renaissance in Extremis,” the band’s sixth record, will utterly eradicate any and all preconceived perceptions about the London quintet and almost certainly catapult the band to the forefront of the modern extreme metal scene. The hyperbolic praise is entirely earned: This is truly a landmark release for the genre and easily one of the year’s greatest metal releases.
Still, Renaissance in Extremis is less of a stylistic overhaul and more of a pristine refinement, and fans of the band's older work will be immediately at home here. Every positive aspect of Akercocke's base sound has been amplified and given ample space to shine and there’s nary a hint of the overlong and uneven moments that noticeably hampered the likes of Antichrist and Words That Go Unspoken, Deeds That Go Undone.
Eight of Renaissance in Extremis' nine songs are genuinely fantastic, but "Unbound by Sin" and "Insentience" are the most awe-inspiring examples of the album's myriad strengths. They're by far the most violent tracks here, and show that behind all the proggy instrumental sections, calm singing and shockingly uplifting atmosphere, Akercocke still boasts a terrifyingly intense metallic core.
“Insentience” might as well be an example of progressive death metal perfected. The track rapidly alternates between ridiculously cinematic shredding and relaxed riffing that is supplemented by phenomenal bass work, the latter most of which is wonderfully audible throughout the record. Vocals similarly switch from light to heavy: Gruff spoken word, inhuman shrieking, and frontman Jason Mendonça’s unbelievably improved clean singing are all prominently displayed, but despite the deliberately stark variance in styles and tempos, the song remains tightly focused and moves smoothly from one passage to the next.
“Unbound by Sin” succeeds on similar grounds—though the high screams are replaced by demonic grunting—and is just as impressive. As with most all of the record’s tracks, “Unbound by Sin” has a staggering number of technical aspects ripe for in-depth critiques, but crucially, extensive analysis is not required to fully enjoy either the track or Renaissance in Extremis as a whole.
The record is a deceptively easy listen, and though its many nuances vastly extend its long-term appeal and greatly add to the enjoyment, Renaissance in Extremis is never even remotely pretentious, overly complex or otherwise victim of progressive music’s many negative stereotypes. The death metal lives up to Akercocke’s wicked standards and keeps the music grounded, even when the gorgeous progressive rock makes the overall sound soar. It’s exceptionally rare for music with these kinds of conflicting styles to mesh so smoothly, but when it works, as it does here, the results are often legitimately breathtaking.
When it gets heavy, Renaissance in Extremis is absolutely vicious, but there’s no doubt that this is Akercocke’s mellowest record by a considerable margin. On one hand, it’s slightly disappointing that the masterful fury of the aforementioned heavy tracks isn’t replicated throughout more of the record, but there’s little room for complaints when the album’s calmer pieces are nearly as good.
“Inner Sanctum” is carried by an upbeat melody that is interspersed with just enough intensity to keep exciting before coming down with some especially melancholic soloing, while “A Final Glance Back Before Departing’s” beautiful outro is undeniably one of the year’s musical highlights. Of course, this is still an Akercocke record, and even these tracks have their malicious segments, but it’s truly incredible that the record’s progressive rock elements, which were often the weakest moments on the band’s older albums, are better than those from bands that exclusively perform that style of music.
As implied earlier, one of the record’s songs falls below the extraordinarily high bar set by the rest of Renaissance in Extremis. That’s record outro “A Particularly Cold September,” which is rather disappointing given its nearly 10-minute duration. Though it’s not a thrillingly electrifying closer, even then, there’s otherwise precious little to critique. The fairly quiet song follows several of the record’s least aggressive pieces, and it’s a shame that Akercocke doesn’t seriously ramp the intensity back for a final go at any point during the track's lengthy run time.
So, there. One otherwise strong song doesn’t mesh perfectly with the following 40-some minutes of near-flawless heavy metal. This is the kind of hyper-specific nitpicking that is reserved for records that ascend to the upper echelons of the critical rating system. Time will tell if Renaissance in Extremis holds up as a modern metal classic, but even if it isn’t, Akercocke’s glorious return to the industry almost certainly won’t be far off. If this ends up being the band’s swan song, it’s hard to imagine a better sendoff.
Until then, if it wasn’t already apparent, Akercocke is back, and misanthropy has never sounded so good.