In wrestling with how to put impressions of Israthoum’s new album into words, the phrase “dead reckoning” popped into my disoriented mind. As a navigational technique, it’s a method of estimating where you are based on where you began, taking into account variables such as speed and direction over the course of the journey. In some circumstances, it might be the best you can do in determining your present position, but it’s prone to the accumulation of errors, and may leave you not knowing accurately where you are, or how to find your way back.
It’s a very “loose” metaphor, and one that applies more to my efforts to introduce the album stream than to the album itself. Arrows From Below is most definitely a journey — and a harrowing one at that, a journey of hellish upheaval and frightening revelation, both ruinous and numinous — but of course you can easily find your way back to the beginning, and re-trace the journey. On the other hand, from the experience of a listener, that journey is likely to leave you in a very different place emotionally than where you began, and at least in my case, also with only error-prone methods of trying to describe that end-position and what happened over the course of the album to produce the change.
The journey crafted on the new album by these Netherlands-based Portuguese alchemists, now roughly 20 years into their career, lasts a bit more than half an hour, divided among six tracks. As already forecast above, it is in many ways a merciless and unforgiving experience, capable of inflicting sonic barrages of stunningly savage and breathtakingly destructive impact, but also creating an equally disruptive impact on your mental and emotional equilibrium.
The highly variable rhythms are executed with bone-shaking power, thanks to thunderous bass lines, spleen-rupturing drum cadences, and skull-busting fills. Of course, while those ever-changing tempos and chameleon-like rhythms seem calculated to keep you off-balance, the band do provide ample opportunities (even if short-lived) for listeners to pump their heads like pistons, fueled by neck-cracking snare patterns and megaton-heavy riffs.
The riffing and the arpeggios are equally disorienting, and equally capable of locking into compulsive grooves, though the dominant impression is one of irrepressible discord and delirium. The guitars reach boiling points of twisted, writhing, shrieking lunacy and insectile frenzy, seething and darting in paroxysms of blood-lusting cruelty and wild abandon — though these are definitely not the only experiences offered by the music.
The fretwork is persistently intricate and meticulously textured, creating a dense and constantly surprising assault on the senses. While the madness of these attacks is capable of creating terrors, the band also shift without warning into displays of fire-fueled ebullience and ecstatic grandeur. Earlier I used words like “revelation” and “numinous”, and that’s because within these harrowing vortices are also haunting, wraithlike tonalities, gloriously gleaming spirals of sound which seem like manifestations of praise, and exotic permutations that bring to mind esoteric incantations, as well as passages that channel doom, degradation, and damnation.
The sense of skin-shivering reverence and unwavering devotion within the music is also channeled in the extravagant vocal cries and solemn chants, as well as in immense swells of power in the music, as if manifesting the ascendancy of horrid eminences from sulphurous depths. On the other hand, the vocals are just as ever-changing as everything else, and so imperious roars, ravenous growls, and crazed shrieks are there to amplify the atmosphere of unhinged violence and unremitting evil. There is nothing mundane about any of the vocal expressions, all of which are… terrifying.
From beginning to end, Arrows From Below is ravishing. Through its manifold changes, the accumulating effect is electrifying but also unmistakably horrific, and no track more frightening than “Tuam Vocavit”, the one that closes the album. It brings this journey, which traverses crushing abyssal depths, houses of blasphemous holiness, the orgies of demonic asylums, and flights across skies on fire, to a soul-crushing conclusion.
Your skin may be left in a cold sweat. Your pulse may be racing and your mind scrambled with conflicting visions. You may not know where you are, and only the roughest idea of how you got there, but it’s hard to imagine anyone listening to this extraordinary album and remaining unchanged.
And with that, I’ll conclude my attempt at dead reckoning and leave you to the music, if you haven’t already lost patience with the verbiage and dived right in. (And if you thought you had finished your EOTY lists, you may need to consider revising them after you hear this.)
Arrows From Below features a stunning album cover by Ubertragic Art, which visually captures many of the music’s sensations. The album will be released on Friday the Thirteenth of December by New Era. It is available on vinyl, CD, and as a digital download, and can be pre-ordered now: