Alkahest, Milk and Morphine: A Place for all That Anger

They’ve been kicking around the miserable, destitute slum known as the Manhattan heavy underground for a couple years now, throwing their post-metallic indulgences in the face of unsuspecting rockers, headbangers and those who just happen to be wherever they are for whatever reason. I’ve seen Brooklyn‘s Alkahest test the endurance of audiences at Ace of Clubs, the Cake Shop and Lit Lounge over the course of their tenure together, and with their self-released debut full-length, Milk and Morphine, the five-piece bring that balance of ethereality and the aurally caustic to bear. An Isis influence in the guitar work of Nikhil Kamineni and Jonathan Powell is impossible to ignore, as the kind of lumbering angularity of many of Milk and Morphine’s riffs can be traced to mid-period albums from that (ultimately) Californian act like Panopticon or its landmark 2002 predecessor, Oceanic. As that album approaches a decade since its release and critics online and in print distance themselves from the hyperbole with which they once lauded post-metal’s crushing ethic (myself included – shit just got tired), it’s worth noting that although Alkahest are well in line with the classification, their aesthetic isn’t wholly dependent on it.

As someone who has watched the band mature over the course of the past couple years (and who, in the interest of full disclosure, considers drummer Rajah Marcelo a personal friend), I’m glad to see that the elements outside the post-metal norm that Alkahest has proffered on stage made it onto disc as well. There is a Euro-doom sense of drama to the later moments of a track like “Gaius” and a blatantly emotional woefulness to the earlier title cut that post-metal largely eschewed in its peak, favoring instead a pseudo-intellectual or psychological commentary. If that’s the avenue that vocalist Chris Dialogue has taken here, he’s done a good job of burying that fact. There are no printed lyrics to Milk and Morphine, and as he trades off between low growling and high-pitched, close-to-the-mic blackened screams, it’s damn near impossible to know what he’s saying. Where Dialogue really separates himself is in the presentation of his vocals. The music behind him is clean, and at times his voice seems like he’s about to be swallowed in it, but he nonetheless is able to do what few screamers in metal can, and that’s convey an emotional range through his vocalizations, however searing they might be. On the five extended songs of the album, he doesn’t once veer into clean singing, and yet anyone not outright prejudiced against screams will be able to sense the passion conveyed on the opener “Sixtus.”

If Milk and Morphine is clean-sounding anywhere, it’s in terms of the production. Rajah Marcelo’s drums come through crisply – although his ride cymbal cuts through “Labrador”’s second half more than the song calls for – and for an album Alkahest recorded themselves, and Kamineni mixed, I’ve few complaints with the actual sound of it. Kamineni must have had his work cut out for him, as his and Powell’s guitars layer effectively with Adam Campenella’s bass and the vocals rest on top. The earlier movement of “Gaius” is perhaps Alkahest’s most Isis-reminiscent stretch — churning, undulating riffs punctuated by Marcelo until the structure gives way to ambient sprawl — but even here Milk and Morphine retains some semblance of identity, and much to its benefit. As the shortest song is the title track and that’s more than eight and half minutes, Alkahest give the material plenty of time to breathe, but the album feels dense nonetheless, and closer “Duchess,” with a brighter feel in the guitars, lets up on that somewhat, which works well offset by Dialogue’s growls and screams, which seem to answer each other with a rottingly poetic rhythm. Pushed a little farther back behind the guitars and rounded out with ranging echo, they nonetheless ratchet up the intensity of the song’s progression, resulting in a build that satisfyingly closes Milk and Morphine’s 52 minutes.

But for the periodic bursts of fury and Dialogue’s unbending, uncompromising fuckall, Milk and Morphine would be an easy record to get lost in. The stretches of ambience that show up beginning on “Sixtus” nonetheless have direction – they go somewhere, is what I mean – and it seems like Alkahest only provide respite to toy with contrast in the face of heaviness to come. There are elements of their sound that are going to alienate listeners either fed up with post-metallic stomp or who can’t abide harsh vocals, but taken on its own terms, Milk and Morphine sets the stage for Alkahest to develop further the lofty and effective sonic palette they lay out. They’ve by no means finished their growth, but for the weariness of the guitars on “Milk and Morphine,” Kamineni’s added synth flourish to “Labrador” and Dialogue’s unhinged emotionality throughout, Alkahest’s pursuit proves worthy of the attention it demands.

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