If there is such a thing as retrofuturistic black metal then Serpentshrine are it. Listening to Besetting The Altar with its shrieking vocals, tinny guitars, unusual song structures, and lo-fi production is like travelling back to Sound Cellar in the early ‘90s. Even the monochromatic cover is a throwback to that era.
The music doesn’t disappoint either. Unaffected by modern trends, Besetting The Altar is marked by a total lack of record scratching, clean singing, sampling, pinched harmonics, or djent guitars. The drums sound programmed which is often a sticking point for metal fans. But this is 2017, if you have an issue with drum programming then the problem is with you, not the band.
The Virginian duo of Bryan Bosch (bass, lead vocals) and Connor Randlett (guitar) owe more than just their image to Norway’s corpsepainted doom-mongers Immortal. There are shades of Morbid Angel and Obituary as well as Scandinavian black metal influences, and they blend them well.
The first of the nine tracks on the record is a mostly acoustic instrument called ‘The Black Temple’. It established a foreboding atmosphere with its minor key progressions and stark tone. You can nearly here the tape hiss.
Some of the riffing is adapted from classic rock and thrash. The opening of ‘A Journey Through The Haunted Forest’ starts with a foot tapping riff that gives way to heavily distorted barre chord buzzing and a lead vocal that sounds uncannily like Dani Filth covering PJ Harvey’s ‘To Bring You My Love’.
The mellow fingerpicked breakdown after the second verse is wholly unexpected. The Budgie-like intermission ends as quickly as it appeared giving over to tremolo picking and a melodic outro. The Hetfieldian arpeggios that open ‘Transvecti Lintribus Amnem’ are accompanied by menacing whispers and lead to an awesome twin guitar riff over which Bosch does an ‘Angel Of Death’ scream. The fuzzy galloping guitars that follow crank up the tempo in the first epic of Besetting The Altar.
The ritualistic spoken words and clean guitar that introduce ‘Revelation’ drip with menace. The bass intro that opens ‘Unholy Affliction’ is echoed by the guitars and variations of it reappear throughout the song. The catchy riffs of ‘The Beautiful Descent’ and the title track leave no doubt that the duo have what it takes in the studio. It would be interesting to witness these tracks live.
Obviously if you are not already acquainted with black and death metal, Serpentshrine will be alien sounding on first listen but if you dabble in the dark side then this is a raw and adventurous take on the extreme end of the metal spectrum. This is their debut album and the band have stated that innovation is one of their prime motivations. One can only imagine where they will go from Besetting The Altar. Thankfully there is talk of a follow up EP and album for next year, hooray!