Spirit of Ecstasy is a difficult and deliberately provocative work of avant-garde experimentalism, but is further proof of Imperial Triumphant’s ability to back up even their most out-there sonic ideas.
New York avant-metal trio Imperial Triumphant have ruffled quite a few feathers on their way to their fifth studio album. Being both lauded as much-needed innovators, breathing new life into an inflexible genre, and derided as posers with no respect for the subculture’s history, this band of masked men has proven itself to be divisive in a scene that prides itself on transgression, while also being rife with purists who loathe deviation. As acts like Deafheaven and Zeal & Ardor were embraced by a non-metal audience — and in Deafheaven’s case, by a certain hipster contingent, intrigued by the band’s unique and somewhat cerebral shoegaze/black metal hybrid — debates about the aesthetic and ideological purity of the genre erupted, and as lines were being drawn, bands like Imperial Triumphant got caught in the crossfire as some traditionalists lumped them in with other divergents, supposedly diluting the trve kvlt ethos of the genre.
Imperial Triumphant’s complicated, dissonant, and mischievous blackened death metal ruckus contains nods to jazz, urban decay, and atomic age anxiety, wrapped in a luxurious, art deco package. The thematic ecosystem the group has created over five albums and three EPs recalls both a bygone era of New York City glamour and intellectualism, and the metropolis’ slow crawl toward an inevitable death. “Our city is like the corpse of a giant,” says the band. “What was once so bright, grand and spectacular, is now filled with greedy maggots writhing towards their share of ‘success.’ We don’t support it nor are we against. We only play the sounds of the New York City as we hear them.” Spirit of Ecstasy certainly carries over a distinct apocalyptic weight found in their previous work. The world of Imperial Triumphant is a decadent fantasia where high class and low life collide, where the grimness of the present is juxtaposed with a pre-World War I belief in the inevitable progress of society. “You can’t repeat the past / Obey your narrator / The nameless lord of infrastructure / The city of the tomorrow / Requires sacrifice today,” sings vocalist-guitarist Zachary Ezrin on “Death on a Highway,” a guttural exploration of technological and historical progress, as seen from the bottom.
Opening with the chaotic “Chump Change,” the LP immediately gets to pondering. “We live in the applause of the gods / Gasping for culture / Everyone is for sale,” they reflect on the cultural epicenter’s decline; “Welcome to New York / La même chose / The same hell.” Carried by tumbling drums, rollicking bass, and angular, discordant guitars, the labyrinthine track overflows with rhythm changes and wild tonal shifts, going from harsh slabs of noise to sparse, freeform jazz noodling. Album standout “Merkurius Gilded” masterfully fuses evocative, tense strings that wouldn’t be out of place in a Golden Age film noir, with furious blast beats and eerie choral singing, all combined into an ominous black metal onslaught. Adding to the maximalist cacophony is none other than ‘90s smooth jazz titan Kenny G, as well as his son Max Gorelick. While the inclusion of the popular but critically derided saxophonist could be put off as a semi-ironic bit of gimmickry, he does bring some exuberant chops to the tune, soloing in tandem with his guitarist son, to wondrous effect.
Later on, after taking things to ridiculously jazzy extremes on the instrumental “In the Pleasure of Their Company,” Spirit of Ecstasy slows down with the crushing nightmare dirge of “Bezumnaya,” a disorienting bone-rattler, filled with squealing feedback and drooled, demonic vocals. Bringing the album to a close is the car-crash fury of “Maximalist Scream,” a downbeat eulogy to the dreams of decades past which approaches something almost bittersweet: “Astonished achievement / Engineer beyond dreams / Maintain a standard / Faded, half-forgotten memory.” It’s a warped, diesel-powered metal frenzy that sees the statuesque triumvirate aided by the thunderous vocal talents of Voivod’s Denis “Snake” Bélanger. By the end, the instruments blur into a block of noise that increases in pitch, before fading into a well-deserved silence.
Spirit of Ecstasy is a difficult and deliberately provocative effort by three of metal’s most daring iconoclasts. But even as their experiments grow wilder and more eccentric with every release, the band has the musicality to back up even their most out-there ideas. Supplemented by an array of prominent and/or acclaimed guests — an indication of the level of respect they enjoy, both in the metal world and beyond — their latest adventures in avant-garde experimentalism see them reaching unprecedented heights and providing the perfect soundtrack for a world that not only seems to be falling apart more with each passing day, but also seems to be lacking any vision for the future — a fact that this album’s boldness both laments and subverts.
Published as part of Album Roundup — July 2022 | Part 1.