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By Nathan Dufour, Great White North
Wednesday, April 4, 2018 @ 2:21 PM

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2018, Hypnotic Dirge Records

The province of Saskatchewan sits cleanly in the centre of Canada. As such, along with the other two prairie provinces of Alberta and Manitoba, Saskatchewan is totally landlocked. Possessed of astounding natural beauty, boasting lush flora and fauna to the north (and a few ice roads in winter) and an abundance of canola, potash, and suicidal deer to the south, Saskatchewan is a land of contrasts. It is at once a desolate barely habitable tundra cursed with seemingly endless winter and a glorious and indescribably place of beaut - just ask anyone about the sunsets. The varied landscapes, weather, and general feel of the province also provides an incredibly fertile groundwork for myriad artists and musicians, not the least of whom present themselves as the blackened doom collective ALTARS OF GRIEF. ALTARS’ second full length, Iris, has come to bring you to your kees not unlike the biting cold in January or the awe inspiring aurora that dances across the skies when the timing is just right.

Iris is a concept album surrounding the personal devastation of a father unable to properly deal with his daughter’s illness and her struggle with it as he struggles with himself. Told through the eyes of both the father and Iris, the lyrical weight the tale cannot be understated. In order to appropriately compose the musical accoutrements of what is essentially a melodramatic tragedy in 8 parts, ALTARS OF GRIEF have enlisted the aid of Canadian cellist Raphael Weinroth-Browne (also of THE VISIT, MUSK-OX) to punch up the emotional impact of the arrangements, everything lurching towards a cacophonous climax of scintillating urgency and despondency at once.

ALTARS OF GRIEF play blackened doom in a style that is very much beholden to Canada and, specifically, its prairie provinces. The sound is crushing, threatening to choke the breath from the listener while also being incredibly vast, rife with open space between notes and movements and forever connected by the sinewy muscle permeating the compositions. Lead singer and main lyricist Damian Smith provides a sonorous and emotive croon juxtaposed to his gargantuan growl, each iteration of his voice encapsulating the portion of the Iris story that needs telling, or screaming. Standout performances from everyone in the group, but special attention is warranted in the case of drummer Zack Bellina. Usually, technical prowess is the cornerstone of discussion of metal drumming, and adjectives like “machine” are often bandied about with abandon. In the case of Bellina, the best adjective for the performance is patient. Instead of over or under playing for the sake of embellishment alone, Bellina sews his own pocket into the back of every single song on Iris, showing remarkable restraint (along with bass phenom Donny Pinay) with regard to structure and pacing. Oh, and those kick drums will hit you square in the heart.

All production work on Iris was performed by Justin Bender and needs to be mentioned, because the man is some sort of otherworldly magician. Aurally, Iris sounds… cold. The production literally crackles like ice underfoot and the pure unadulterated sorrow of the storyline is palpable, the listener almost able to taste the cold winter air serving as a constant companion to the protagonists of the story both inside and outside the self. Cold is not to be confused with tinny, as Bender ensures that all instruments shine most grimly within the brutal confines of his exemplary mixing and mastering abilities, really biting into the crux of a heaviness somehow existential and omnipotent and briefly harnessed by ALTARS OF GRIEF over the course of Iris’ 8 tracks. The production work is a gorgeous testament to form and function.

It would be irresponsible to ignore the somewhat obvious comparisons to WOODS OF YPRES that ALTARS OF GRIEF are sure to encounter, being that that influence is worn proudly on the sleeve (and battle jacket). It is my firm belief that David Gold himself has an ethereal hand in the way that Iris grabs the listener and, though he is no longer with us, his influence runs deep and is no doubt a part of the very DNA of anyone with an ear to listen. So to it is with ALTARS, however, with the master now departed, the students have taken their seats at the head of the class. Iris is a monumental accomplishment and an album that comes along very rarely. Pay attention, pupils, the masters are in session.

5.0 Out Of 5.0

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