In Dante’s Inferno, the second circle begins the proper punishment of Hell, a place where “no thing gleams.” It is reserved for those overcome with Lust, where carnal appetites hold sway over reason. In Nine Circles, it’s where we do shorter reviews of new (ish) albums that share a common theme.
There was the briefest of moments, listening to the second album in the span of two weeks from New Mexico’s Void Ritual that I got angry. It was a green-tinged anger, the kind that could only come from the jealous realization that here was a man doing what I was attempting to do, but doing it with a breadth and passion and technical execution I would always dream of but never achieve. And twice in August! It’s like that sometimes, and it passes quickly enough when I remember I didn’t corner the market on crippling self doubt. It also helps that Daniel Jackson, the man behind Void Ritual is by all accounts (including my own) a hell of a good guy so for this edition of Second Circle I put aside my childish envy and revel in my admiration to engage with his latest two full-lengths.
My first listen to Death Is Peace had its own air of ritual. Taking Dan at his word after reading our own Vincent’s review of the album for his Receiving the Evcharist column, I grabbed a bottle of the 2015 Sierra Nevada Barleywine Style Ale, put on my headphones and let the album wash over me. The opening seconds of “Give Unto the Water” expose a sense of melodic exploration only hinted at in previous albums, eschewing the more frostbitten nature of 2017’s Heretical Wisdom. That sense of melody carries through the intro into the song proper, with Jackson’s guitar lines relying less and less on brute force and more on open dynamics. There’s a greater sense of space where his guitars can work with and against each other, and that sense of interplay is carried forward on the title track. Each section maintains a healthy balance of tunefulness and aggression as the song charges ahead in multiple 6/8 subdivisions before alternating with a 4/4 gallop in its final moments.
It’s here where my musician head takes over. Listening I find myself pausing and counting the beats out, then pausing and replaying the song again to understand how Jackson’s structuring things. I move on to “The Howling Darkness” and this time it’s marveling over the change in intensity and how he gets his drums to sound so good. The lyrics really begin to kick in too, as I find my own fears and solitude in lines like “A plea for the wintermoon’s return / And yet the darkness prevails.” This is how the rest of Death is Peace goes, an ever-evolving circle of emotional and analytical engagement. From the way the keyboards insinuate themselves into the main thrust of “In the Depths” to the dissonant anguish of closer “Loss (Pt. 1)” with its classic second wave tremolo lines and crushing line “I’ve earned no sympathy / I’ve earned no warmth” striking true and paining me more than I care to admit, the album is a ripped and torn black metal achievement for Void Ritual and another yardstick I use to measure myself as I try to make my own way as a musician and a fellow human trying to make sense of the world around me.
And yet…there’s something about how cold and barren Desolate. Eternal. is that makes me maybe love it even more than Death is Peace. Jackson’s framed it as a return to the earlier brutality of his debut Holodomor EP and that’s true, but you can’t help but see the growth and maturity between that release and this. The panned guitars in “Desolate Eternal I: The Glorification of Blood and Ice” furiously whip against each other, and though my ears want to separate and pick apart I’m constantly drawn back into the song, its hooks refusing to let me take it on anything but its own terms.
“Endless” is a nasty piece of work, straightforward in its attack and relentless in its drive. As a whole Desolate. Eternal. hews closely to its second wave roots – check out the break in “Sorrowlight” for some serious mid-period Darkthrone action – but the album and Jackson consistently refuse to bend to the genre’s more worn tropes. “Cruelty Incarnate” takes a more sinister lean with a dirge pace alternating between more traditional blast beat fare, and “Desolate Eternal II: The Glorification of Rot” returns to the Immortal black war metal of the opening track with a few melodic surprises surfacing momentarily in the menace. Fully embracing the DIY ethic there’s nothing on Desolate. Eternal. that doesn’t immediately grab and yank you to attention, and it’s a credit to Jackson’s concise songwriting that before you know it the album’s over, ready to be replayed again.
Each time I hear these albums I find small pieces that fascinate me, both as a listener and as a musician. Treading a similar course of trying to do everything yourself it’s impossible not to see Jackson and Void Ritual (not to mention his myriad of other, excellent, projects) as both a yard stick and an ideal. It’s also exciting to see how people can take a genre seemingly so set in its ways and find new avenues to explore, whether lyrically, musically, or even in its manner of distribution.
All of which is another way of saying I’m happy to hold onto my jealousy if it means we keep getting releases like this from Void Ritual. In the meantime, keep it heavy and pure and let us know what’s been working for you so far this year.