You’d think being a musician would count for something when it comes to reviewing an album. Listening to a piece of music while simultaneously deciphering the method of its execution would surely provide some deeper insight into the multitude of layers enveloping the latest blackgaze project, or the frenetic syncopations of the current tech death band hitting the scene. Truth be told, it’s more often a hindrance than a help: you get distracted trying to dissect what’s happening instead of just listening, hearing what’s happening and simply committing yourself to the artistic aims of the music. Luckily Ash Borer is here with The Irrepassable Gate to remind us in blistering fashion music is meant to be voraciously consumed, mainlined in hypnotic delusion rather than picked apart and categorized in technique and time signatures.
Standing on the outskirts of the west coast USBM scene, Ash Borer has with only a handful of releases dating back to their 2009 demo showed they can work with a multitude of influences without sounding anything like them. Incorporating aspects of funeral doom and ambient/drone to the traditional black metal template, tracks like “In the Midst of Life, We Are in Death” immediately set the band apart from their peers in the middle of the woods. There’s also a subtle punk esthetic at work, a homemade and raw feeling that mutated and transformed with experience into something altogether more harrowing on 2012’s Cold of Ages. Intent was more premeditated: the slower, dirge-like intro to opener “Descended Lamentations” being a perfect example of the repeated phrase taking on a more sinister tone as the feedback intensifies before storming off into the main riff. It was a darker, colder album, the production much more up front and chaotic. Despite releasing an EP in 2013 there was no real indication where the mysterious band (all members are represented by a different letter) would take the next album.
Three and a half years later we have our answer, and it turns out to be the best thing they’ve released to date. Featuring a gorgeously deep production that opens up the space between the instruments, The Irrepassable Gate smooths out some of the dark menace that came purely from its production style and puts it all in the songs. This is where being a musician fails you — three minutes into the opening title track and I get lost just falling into the maelstrom of colliding guitars and crashing cymbals. There are so many riffs coming and going it becomes dizzying, and when it finally slips into a slower pace you’re still hanging on every note. I hesitate to say there’s a newfound focus on melody in tracks like “Lacerated Spirit” and the two “Lustration” tracks that divide and end The Irrepassable Gate because that would give the impression Ash Borer have softened a touch. This isn’t the case at all. If anything, they’ve refined their musical intent to a sharp point, that confidence allowing them to open the sound up even more, maturing while embracing the more dissonant moments that characterized the earlier records. It’s almost futile to find a single high point to emphasize, but at 12+ minutes “Rotten Firmament” stands as the album’s epic: drenched in reverb and melancholy, it works as a master class in modern black metal — brutal howling vocals, copious amounts of tremolo picking and jagged tempos interwoven with crushing breakdowns wrapped in a fog of atmospheric keyboards and devilish drumming.
It’s ridiculous how spoiled we’ve been with metal in 2016. It has been a year with unbelievable releases from new and established acts in literally every genre and sub genre you could shake a stick at, and just when you think it can’t get any better here comes Ash Borer to bludgeon you into leaving an extra line open on your year end lists for The Irrepassable Gate.