After releasing their self-titled MeteorCity debut in 2009 to a more than warm reception from the heavy underground (review here), Northampton, Massachusetts, battle doomers Black Pyramid proceeded to hit the road on several tours and unleashed a tide of singles and splits. 2010 saw a split with Old One issued (review here), and 2011 followed with a slew of vinyl: the Mercy’s Bane single, the Stormbringer single – a CD compilation of wax-only material would soon follow on Hydro-Phonic under the same name – and a split with Tenspeed Warlock. The three-piece of guitarist/vocalist Andy Beresky, bassist Gein and drummer Clay Neely headed out on a European tour for the first time alongside reborn East Coast doom magnates Blood Farmers, and including a stop at last year’s Roadburn, seemed to be on the verge of their greatest triumph yet with the MeteorCity release of their second album, II. Long story short, the band imploded. Beresky split, and after some soul-searching, Neely and Gein decided to continue Black Pyramid, bringing on board guitarist/vocalist Darryl Shepard (Hackman, Blackwolfgoat, Milligram) late in 2011 and setting almost immediately about writing new material. This puts II in something of an awkward position, release-wise. The album is at once obsolete already and the creative high point of the band to date. Its nine component tracks explode with confrontational energy, and it seems Black Pyramid were really just coming into their own as they made what would be their final statement in this incarnation.
That’s especially true of Beresky, whose performance throughout II is easily the best of his career either in this band or in his prior outfit, Palace in Thunderland. Whether it’s the more scripted-sounding leads of “Dreams of the Dead” or the layered acoustic work of the interlude “Tanelorn,” or the High on Fire-esque bombast of the later movements in “Sons of Chaos,” he handles it all deftly and with poise, and his vocals – a subject of some debate among followers of the band – show development both melodically and in terms of the confidence in delivery. His descending semi-melodicism in opener “Endless Agony” begins to display itself as a genuine style by the end of II, and similar to the way Slough Feg incorporates progressions out of Celtic folk, Beresky brings a drinking-song cadence to his lines that only enhances the battle-minded lyrics. Neely, who also engineered II, has him layer the guitar effectively, so that leads are backed by rhythm tracks in addition to the bass and drums, and the resulting sound is full and engaging – “Mercy’s Bane” beginning with Neely’s own thundering toms and moving quickly to stand itself out as a highlight of the album following the immersive and catchy “Endless Agony,” a well-placed opener for its memorable lyric and musical hook. “Mercy’s Bane” is longer by more than two full minutes, but expands on the ideas in the album’s beginning without losing sight of the structure that makes it so effective. Black Pyramid are heavy – certainly tonally and thematically weighted – but still unflinchingly accessible, and they remain so even in the varying moments of indulgence that the hour-long II presents.
A slowdown caps “Mercy’s Bane” and acts as lead-in for the chugging “Night Queen,” which rounds out a strong opening trio of memorable choruses and riffs. Gein’s bass follows Beresky’s guitar for the most part, handling the winding transitions between cycles in “Night Queen” well while the vocals come on in effective near-gang-chant layers. A longer instrumental break starts quiet and finds Neely rolling on his snare while Beresky tops with a relatively-restrained wah solo, one of II’s bluesiest and best. At 6:48, “Night Queen” is the longest of the record’s “regular” tracks – and by that I mean the ones under 10 minutes and that feel purposefully extended – of which there are two. The first is “Dreams of the Dead,” which follows “Night Queen,” effectively rounding out the first half of II (though “Tanelorn” could just as easily be an outro to the first half as an intro to the second on the CD; the time divide is actually more even that way) and making for one of the album’s most accomplished moments melodically. It seems to be Black Pyramid stepping out of their doom-stomping comfort zone, though that element is still there, and it’s worth noting that after the second chorus ends at about three minutes in, the remainder of “Dreams of the Dead”’s 12:12 runtime is devoted to expansive instrumental parts, breaking following a driving riff and solo at almost precisely five minutes to effect a grandiose build from the ground up. It’s effective, and the part works, but can also feel a little tacked on when looked at from the structural perspective. I’m not sure the longer part wouldn’t also have worked following “Mercy’s Bane” or “Night Queen,” in other words, and why, despite its increased melodic focus, it needed to be “Dreams of the Dead” given the ultra-epic treatment on an album full of epics.
The simple fix for that is bring the first part’s chorus back at the end – though as far out as they go, they’d have a tough time writing that transition – but “Dreams of the Dead” satisfies as is on its own level, and Black Pyramid do pretty much the same thing with “Into the Dawn,” the closer and other extended cut at 15:37, which abandons its lyrical structure at about 3:30. A trio can afford to do something like that live because there isn’t a stand-alone singer waiting there for 12 minutes with nowhere to put himself, but though it offers symmetry between the first half of II and the second, following “Tanelorn,” “Sons of Chaos,” “Empty-Handed Insurrection” and “The Hidden Kingdom,” “Into the Dawn” can feel cumbersome if you’re not already totally on board and willing to let yourself go along with Gein, Beresky and Neely by that point. Fortunately, they do a pretty good job of making sure you are, beginning with the semi-medieval acoustics of “Tanelorn” (no relation to the Blind Guardian song of the same name, other than the common reference out of fantasy literature) and moving into the foreboding groove of “Sons of Chaos,” which launches straight out of the Blessed Black Wings-era High on Fire playbook, balancing thrash tension against thickened tonality and fleeting solo work. Out of all the tracks on II, it’s perhaps the most that’s singularly about what Beresky is doing on guitar, but his performance stands up to the extra scrutiny resulting, even though his solo feels cut short. Neely’s tom runs following give the song its headbang-worthy drive, and the transition into the shorter instrumental “Empty-Handed Insurrection” feels more like a crash than a smooth crossing over, but no question that’s exactly what Black Pyramid intended for it.
It’s not filler exactly, serving as a bridge between “Sons of Chaos” and “The Hidden Kingdom,” which brings back the endearing catchiness of II’s first tracks, but “Empty-Handed Insurrection” feels underdeveloped compared to some of what’s around it, a quickly-materialized groove not really getting the chance to pay itself off before the next cut takes hold. On the whole, II doesn’t need to be any longer, but presented differently or with more of a build, “Empty-Handed Insurrection” could affect a more apparent progression. Maybe that’s nitpicking – at 2:51, it’s practically over before its start, and “The Hidden Kingdom” mirrors the methodology of “Night Queen” in balancing a hooky chorus with grander instrumentation. Beresky’s vocals – basically shouts – fit the verses well, and the subtle weaving in of acoustic guitar gives the aforementioned closer, “Into the Dawn,” a fitting precursor. That’s not to mention that the verse-based structure also gives way to instrumentalism on “The Hidden Kingdom” as it does with the finale, making the pairing even more appropriate. “Into the Dawn” fits as well with “Dreams of the Dead”’s willingness to engage with melody in the vocals, and if you’re locked into the album’s overarching groove, the ensuing riffs will feel like gravy. Just before the eight-minute mark, the song crashes and feedbacks into a ring-out that seems like a conclusion, but ultimately gives way to the second half, topped with cascading lead lines and morphing gradually into one of the heaviest stretches of II, which in turn rings out to a guitar-led build that once more incorporates acoustics and multiple layers of electrics, cleaner toned and more ready to let Gein’s bass shine through. Like the conclusion of “Dreams of the Dead,” it feels somewhat tacked on to the song itself, but it works to wrap the record, devolving to rumble and fading to silence.
With II apparently being the last from Black Pyramid’s Beresky-fronted incarnation, it’s fitting that the album should be their best offering to date. It answers loudly the potential of the first record and shows that substantial growth had taken place in a relatively short amount of time, with Gein and Neely proving a formidable rhythm section more than able to stand up to the onslaught of riffs and leads. As Black Pyramid move into their next phase with Shepard at the fore, it will be fascinating to hear how the two consistent members of the band continue to progress, and of course, to see how the personality of the band changes with the shift in vocals and guitar. While I look forward to that and feel – perhaps even more than before – that Black Pyramid have the capability to do great things within heavy rock and doom, it’s hard not to listen to II and be wistful for what this lineup could’ve accomplished going forward from here. II is an early 2012 highlight and an excellent closing chapter in the band’s ongoing journey.
Tags: Black Pyramid, Massachusetts, MeteorCity, Northampton