Primordial - Exile Amongst The Ruins (2018)
Primordial's newest album is a study in ever-evolving shades of grey.
Metal Blade Records 03/2018
Full album available on Youtube via Metal Blade Records.
Primordial have been extremely original, determined and consistent through their whole career. Since forging their brand of extremely somber pagan metal in the black metal fires of the 1990's, they have honed their sound into a dynamic blend of dark melodies, celtic influences and raw power, releasing a near-perfect album after another. That puts quite a lot of pressure on their ninth studio album, Exile Amongst the Ruins. Is this the album that fails to meet (perhaps unrealistically) high expectations of the fans?
Yes and no. The answer, if there is one, is somewhere in the somber grey part of the gradient scale, a place where I seem to find myself wandering often when trying to get to grips with the album.
The first striking feeling is that Primordial have gone back in time in terms of their sound. Exile Amongst the Ruins sounds more like Redemption at the Puritan's Hand (2011) than 2014's Where Greater Men Have Fallen, which had more of a modern metal sound. This album is raw, but not lo-fi. On the whole, the album feels more immediate and intimate than the crushing guitars swimming in a sea of reverb on Where Greater Men Have Fallen. While it could be debated that the band took a step back into more familiar ground after trying to evolve their sound, the change in sound is justified by the music itself. Their last album was epic and thematically grand, Exile Amongst the Ruins feels more intimate and, excuse the expression, primordial.
The Irish band are the masters of gloomy and strangely primitive soundscapes that drip with sadness and despair. Exile Amongst the Ruins delivers exactly that. Nail Their Tongues is a strong opener that sets up the familiar melancholy mood but it is soon overshadowed by To Hell or the Hangman, which is the true gem of the album. The 7-minute long song based around one strong riff seems like a song you might find in a artsy 80's post punk song instead of an extreme metal band's album in the 2010's, but it feels fresh, something that much of the album does not, unfortunately, achieve.
While the first half works extremely well and reminds me why Primordial is one of the interesting metal bands around, the latter half fails to impress, at least first. Upon Our Spiritual Deathbed's chillingly emotional chorus sets it apart as the high point of the latter half, but the shorter Stolen Years, gloomy Sunken Lungs and the finisher Last Call do not hold any great surprises and feel very familiar and similar to Primordial’s older material.
Therein lies the core contradiction with Exile Amongst the Ruins that makes it so difficult to review. Even though most of the songs do not offer great surprises, they are absolutely competent and true to Primordial's strong style. The band have found their thing and keep to it, creating terrifyingly effective and emotional songs, but can a well-defined style become a problem when it begins to stagnate? Do a few surprises and true gems keep the album from feeling stale?
In the case of Exile Amongst the Ruins the answer is, mostly, yes. Even the more predictable material still shines bright with the characteristic melancholy and rage we have come to expect from Primordial. The guitar leads of Ciáran MacUilian and Micheál Ó Floinn drip with raw emotion. Bassist Pól MacAmhlaigh and drummer Simon Ó Laoghaire create a dynamic groove on every track, which makes the album feel alive and sets Primordial apart from so many other bands of the genre.
The true powerhouse performace comes from the vocalist Alan "Nemtheanga" Averill, though. He has solidified his station as one of the greatest metal vocalists in the past, and this album might well be his masterpiece. The sheer dynamic range of his performances is astonishing and the vocal melodies on the new songs are more intricate than before. The less polished and more intimate production of the album lets the vocals shine through the mix. Especially Averill's doubling of the lines in a higher register creates a chilling effect that helps to elevate the partially uninspired material.
Exile Amongst the Ruins is not an album that instantly wins you over and offers new and exciting things. It needs to be contemplated for a while for all of the new nuances and details amongst the familiar to sink in.
Only the perspective of time will tell if this is the point when Primordial began to stagnate or if this is the point where they honed their style and sound to its peak. In the meantime, this album is very much worthy of your attention.