There’s an aspect of theatricality to black metal that lies forever intertwined with whatever home-brewed philosophy is present. I don’t say this as a bad thing: in fact it’s a major draw to the genre, but it’s also something that’s not acknowledged enough. Lychgate seem very aware of how they want to position both the lyrical content of their music as much as instrumentation, and on latest offering The Contagion in Nine Steps this marriage of nihilistic commentary and striking erudite metal has never been as effective. It’s a deep and challenging record that isn’t afraid to let its dramatic moments fly.
This melding isn’t anything new to the UK outfit. Since 2013’s self-titled debut the band has proven to be adept at crafting twisting and progressive music that didn’t sacrifice any of the darkness and mystery inherent in the genre. Much of this comes from mastermind J.C. Young, aka Vortigern whose familiarity with styles as diverse as classical and ambient, electronic music drive the bending structures of tracks like “Resentment” and “In Self Ruin” even as the band shows an adeptness with more traditional tracks like “Against the Paradoxical Guild.” The proliferation of keyboards and organ add a lingering dread and funereal atmosphere, something that was accentuated on follow-up An Antidote for the Glass Pill. Playing with space in the song structure as well as emphasizing the more bombastic and diabolic sounds the organ can produce, it was a huge step forward into otherworldly terrain. “Davamesque B2” fluidly moves from classical fugue to doom, before transforming into truly surreal drama, echoing bands like Arcturus as much as the combination of talent the band originates from, including Esoteric and Macabre Omen. “I Am Contempt” pushes the wicked carnival atmosphere even further, but underlying it all is a dense sonic tapestry that speaks volumes to the care and technique that goes into crafting each track.
Even more care is taken with regards to utilizing space and exacting intonation on The Contagion in Nine Steps. Opening with “Republic” finds Lychgate entering Ihsahn territory, completely unafraid to experiment with form and function. Organs are even more prominent, and the lyrical content is just as heady: the entire album is an exploration of crowd psychology and the trappings of a swarm mentality, using Stanislaw Lem’s The Invincible as a jumping off point to explore themes addressed by Plato, Gustave Le Bon, and Elias Canetti.
Heady stuff, but even if needing a doctorate to grasp the central concepts isn’t your thing, you can still get a full education on the music alone. “Unity of Opposites” jumps and syncopates in a dozen different directions as clean vocals get into the mix. As much a force of nature as drummer T. J. F. Vallely was on previous albums, it’s this moment where he truly shines. Never relying on simple blast beats or anything remotely “ordinary,” his rhythms and percussive cadences stand out as a singular voice in the music as opposed to a simple timekeeper. The idea to employ guest vocalists also serves Vortigern’s compositions, as The Contagion in Nine Steps benefits from a rich layer of harmonics in the vocal department.
Moving forward, “Atavistic Hypnosis” moves back to the funeral doom vibe, but punctuated by the theatrical vocals and Emperor circa Prometheus guitar lines the song is anything but commonplace. “Hither Comes the Swarm” starts with a brooding, almost sinewy bass line, chopped with piano before a sickening riff overlays the track. It lays on some of the darkest moments of the record, despite a relatively brutal section midway through. “The Contagion” is the sprawling epic of the album, capturing and executing on the musical themes Lychgate has been perfecting over the last five years.
With so much music trapped in a loop of repetition and sameness it’s almost startling how fresh and invigorating Lychgate feels each time they release an album. The Contagion in Nine Steps feels like the next step in an evolution that refuses to stagnate, and its immediacy in sound is only exceeded by its breadth of ideas. It’s been a long time since something that grabbed me so quickly refuses to divulge its secrets, and I’m only too happy to continue plumbing the albums many depths.