To operate effectively on your brain stem, extreme metal doesn’t require catchy melodies or viral riffs. You don’t have to find yourself humming the songs in your head hours or days later in order to enjoy the listening experience. In fact, as we all know, music in which the instrumentalists deliver nothing but down-tuned brute-force percussion, especially when accompanied by ravenous howling or bear-like roaring, can strike all the right chords even when you can’t reconstruct the songs in your mind a day later.
Yet I think it’s undeniable that clever melodic hooks and instantly headbangable rhythms are a big part of what makes classic heavy metal “classic”. Those are key ingredients (though not necessarily essential ones) that give songs staying power. Match that up with extremity in the vocal department, and you’ve got something that has the potential for real appeal to listeners (like me) who enjoy a memorable, neck-snapping song but also have a thirst for musical bestiality with a seasoning of the occult. And if you discover a band who do that while also delivering surprising variety and lyrical themes involving Lovecraftian horror, then you’ve got yourself a real winner.
And that’s what I’ve found in Torches Ablaze by the Finnish duo known as Arkhamin Kirjasto. They’ve pulled off a neat trick on their virally infectious debut album: combining throwback heavy metal riffs, death metal vocals, atmospheric guitar touches, and Lovecraftian lyrics in a way that’s as interesting as it is irresistible.
In a nutshell, Arkhamin Kirjasto (“The Library of Arkham”, in Finnish) is the project of Jussi Lehtisalo, who manages the eclectic Ektro Records label and has been involved in numerous other bands (including Circle, Pharoah Overlord, and Split Cranium) and solo artist Samae Koskinen. Lehtisalo brought to the project his interest in extreme experimental music as well as hard rock, glam, and punk, while Koskinen was driven by interests ranging from Maiden-esque heavy metal to early death metal.
(photos credit: Juuso Westerlund)
The 10 songs on Torches Ablaze are mostly in the 2-4 minute range, the whole album flashing by in just over 35 minutes. But so ingenious are the addictive riffs that there’s not one of them that fails to grab your attention almost immediately. The opening track, “The Cult of No Return”, sticks the needle in the vein from the album’s first moments. Following a brief, spacey, orchestral-styled introduction, it injects a classic heavy metal riff that shoots straight to your head and drives away all other thoughts. I shit you not, that riff is pure fucking genius.
It’s followed closely by the left hook in Arkhamin Kirjasto’s one-two punch — those bestial death metal vocals of Samae Koskinen, the kind that roar ravenously but are still mostly intelligible, giving voice to those Lovecraftian lyrics.
And there’s more where that came from. “Knights of Torment” dials up the distortion level with punk-infused death ‘n’ roll flavor, reminding me of Entombed but without the detuning. “Sleeping Beauty” is a flat-out catchy-as-hell gallop that made me think of Motörhead, but with filthy harsh vocals and a spacey soaring guitar laid over the hell-for-leather rhythms. Perfect for hitting the open road in a hot machine and eating up the miles as fast as you can swallow them.
“Sea of Madness” pulls a switch, and the band head down a strange side track, throttling back on the pace while amping the weirdness. It’s a 70’s-style throwback, with clean vocal harmonies and eerie whispers, a slightly psychedelic flavor, a pealing melodic solo, and even some acoustic strumming. Despite the infectious ethereal melody, it still swims in an occult tide (and as you’ll see, the band have created a mystifying video for the song that makes the music seem even more strange).
“Bitch From Hell” punches up the tempo with a heavy jumping riff and sees the return of the death metal vox. It includes a catchy guitar lead with a surprising acoustic accompaniment and a riveting guitar solo that extrapolates on the song’s core melody. You may also be tempted to growl along with the chorus.
More vocal variety makes an appearance in “Thousand Snakes”, with higher-pitched blackened shrieks piercing yet another hard-chugging riff and a bit of d-beat percussion. It may again remind you of death ‘n’ roll without the down-tuning, but the chiming, reverberating guitar chords in the song are further proof that this band are bent on mixing things up in ways you won’t see coming. And speaking of surprises, wait for the strange yet searing reverberating guitar solo in “Speed, Yog Sogoth”, a song that’s fierce with rapid, jabbing riffs but collapses at the end in a flurry of disjointed distorted notes.
“Golem Made of Flesh” is another galloping number built of heavy, jagged chords but leavened with a rippling, chiming, melodic guitar solo. “Synthetic Death” follows it with more up-tempo propulsion but includes an instrumental break with guitar notes that alternately tinkle and squall. Nothing is ever quite as simple as first impressions may suggest.
To bring the album to a close, the band deliver “When the Light Is Dead”, a slower song with a falling atmospheric melody and contrasting throaty roars that echo like a tomb. The occult flavor of this 70’s-style metal throwback is heightened by a moaning guitar solo. Needless to say by now, the riffing is also catchy as fuck.
An argument could be made that all infectious music is simple. It’s not that our minds are incapable of remembering complexity, but there’s something about simple combinations of chords and rhythms that have a way of embedding themselves. Of course, creating such things isn’t easy. Arkhamin Kirjasto have that special knack for creating infectious music, but they’re not satisfied with delivering viral riffs that would be right at home in a Priest or Maiden or Motörhead song. They add unusual atmospherics and a tincture of evil through a myriad of clever touches that make this album a striking and unusually satisfying debut.
I’ve collected below all of the songs that have been released for public streaming to date, including two band-released videos. The album is available on iTunes and Amazon mp3 or in physical form from Ektro Records. The very cool cover art is by Hungarian artist Sandor Valy.