Poisoned Altars, released on January 27 via Relapse Records, is the sophomore effort by Portland, OR sludge quartet Lord Dying. While their 2013 debut full-length, Summon the Faithless, was received with positive reviews for its innovative and relentless mix of sludge, doom, and thrash metal, Poisoned Altars is a more realized effort, showing the band coming into its own without sacrificing a bit of ferocity.
Now, if there’s anything along the lines of a disclaimer for someone hearing this album, or this band, for the first time, it’s that diversity is simply not part of their modus operandi. So if you’re gonna be that way, well, listen to Poisoned Altars all the way through, disparage it for being monotonous, and then get over it. Put the album on again, and appreciate the fact that it strives for – and achieves – continuous effect over subtlety or variety. Because there’s no doubt that this album is a continuous barrage of volume and aggression. And if that lack of diversity was the reason their first album got more 6 and 7 star reviews than 8 and 9 star reviews, with Poisoned Altars they’ve put together a record that’s more cohesive, and frankly better, and rather than paint the band as a one trick pony, it’s this degree of improvement that in fact justifies their decision to maintain a certain uniformity of sound.
Perhaps the most noted characteristic of Lord Dying’s stylistic approach is their marriage of thick, heavy doom sensibilities with the more technical, more blistering tendencies of thrash. And it’s probably this marriage that garners them frequent comparisons to High on Fire, but if High on Fire can thrash in a loose, proto-thrash, Motorhead sort of way, there’s no denying that Lord Dying’s incorporation of the subgenre hails more directly from the “golden age” of 80’s thrash and its obvious list of chief practitioners. Sure, the doomier side of Lord Dying can get quite loose, but the thrashy elements are tight and precise, and allow the band plenty of opportunities to showcase their chops instead of simply trying to get slower or heavier. And this is what sets Lord Dying apart: they’ve managed to swim past the divergence of so many other metal bands into the two camps of a) how many notes can I possibly fit into two seconds vs. b) lets tune dowwwwwwwwwwwn and get slowwwwwwwwwwer. Simply put, they’re the best of both worlds, and they are able to tread across styles without ever losing what makes them unique.
The album opens with the title track, which fittingly serves as an immediate encapsulation of this sound and approach. The song begins with a thrashy doom riff before switching over to a doomy thrash riff, and as soon as the latter hits we hear the monotone shout of guitarist/vocalist Erik Olson, whose raw immediacy we quickly realize is another trademark component of Lord Dying’s sound. Rare in the world of metal, Lord Dying are masters of the mid-tempo, which we get a better sense of on the album’s second track, “The Clearing at the End of the Path”. In a very Red Fang kind of way, the song oscillates between energy and restraint, tension and release, before clearing the path for a bridge with enough rhythmic and tonal complexity to convince you that Lord Dying have plenty more tricks at their disposal than simple bludgeoning. Which is not to say that they aren’t quite effective bludgeoners.
For me, one of the definite standout tracks on the album is “An Open Sore”, in part because it showcases the talents of drummer Rob Shaffer. The song is built on a great riff that drives hard, but what really makes the song is the way that Shaffer’s continually shifting rhythmic phrasing, particularly in the chorus, adds both complexity and force. Thrash and doom both are subgenres that can too easily fall victim to rhythmic oversimplicity, but Lord Dying’s mastery of rhythmic phrasing allows them to turn good riffs into great songs. Can someone please suggest a synonym for “rhythmic”?
Thankfully, another favorite is the album’s closer, “Darkness Remains”. It’s appropriately epic, clocking in as the longest on the album, and sending us off with a huge sequence that brings things from double guitar leads, to climactic solo, to final, driving, riff fest. And then to a full minute of what sounds like a robot sawing itself in half.
Some bands attempt to be bold by writing 20 minute epics, or putting each song on their album in a different mode, or forcing us to figure out whether the time signature is 11 or 13. But on Poisoned Altars, Lord Dying shows a much different, and a much more genuine, kind of boldness, and that is the courage to keep doing what they do best, but simply doing it better. They are a hard-working band, and this complete success of an album is an absolute testament to that.
Buy the album here.