Evoken, Atra Mors: Through the Dark Gates

Now in their 18th year (20th if you count their beginnings as Funereus), Lyndhurst, New Jersey, death/doom outfit Evoken remain both an anomaly in their surroundings and crushing in both their sonics and their atmospherics. Their new album, Atra Mors, is their first since 2007’s A Caress of the Void and marks their debut on Profound Lore, following a 2010 I Hate Records split with Beneath the Frozen Soil (review here). For anyone who has never encountered the band before, they are unrelenting in their doomed miseries. The music, even when it moves fast, is lurching, lumbering under the weight of its enveloping sadness. We think of this sound now as classic, and Evoken’s work within it is a part of the reason why. Death/doom acts are few and far between on the East Coast (believe me), but though Evoken were preceded by the likes of Winter, the fact that original members John Paradiso (vocals, guitar) and Vince Verkay (drums) have been able to stick it out through the years and ensuing trends while remaining loyal to the band’s original mission – not without expanding the creative scope – has led to a growing respect for what they do that Atra Mors can only further. The album itself is eight tracks and 67 minutes, broken down so that pairs of extended tracks are broken up by interludes that presumably are meant to allow the listener a chance to catch their breath before being submerged again in Evoken’s wrenching abysmal churn. A look at the tracklisting makes the structure clear:

1. Atra Mors (11:54)
2. Descent into Chaotic Dream (11:14)
3. A Tenebrous Vision (2:19)
4. Grim Eloquence (9:40)
5. An Extrinsic Divide (10:11)
6. Requies Aeterna (1:59)
7. The Unechoing Dread (9:47)
8. Into Aphotic Devastation (10:07)

Both of the interludes – “A Tenebrous Vision” and “Requies Aeterna” – are instrumental, ambient works that serve to further the bleak dreariness of the mood and bridge groups of longer cuts. Their effectiveness in this regard proves them all the more necessary. At a total 67 minutes, Atra Mors is encompassing on a level that, frankly, is surprising.

With extensive keyboard work from Don Zaros featured alongside Paradiso and Chris Molinari’s guitars, Evoken’s reveling in pomposity is writ large across Atra Mors, and whether it’s the strings on “Requies Aeterna” or the sustained ringing notes of the opening title-track, they’re responsible for much of the album’s melodic underpinning. While Paradiso keeps his vocals either to low, deathly growls or spoken word-type recitations, Zaros’ keys give the material a richness that adds complexity to the overarching darkness of the songs. He drops out periodically to enhance the drama – doing as much through silence as he does with his instrument – but there’s no question Atra Mors couldn’t be nearly as successful as it is in conveying its wretchedness without him. That’s not to say the guitars are entirely lacking melodic flourish, but in kind with David Wagner’s bass, they’re so entrenched in low end as to barely let light escape. The keys are understated at times, but their contrast to the rest of the music – and how well that contrast is ingrained in the overall sound of the album – is essential. That’s no less true as the drudgery of “Descent into Chaotic Dream” gives way after seven minutes in to a release in the tension of true death metal groove, complete with double-kick from Verkay and a head-down chug to match. As I said, even fast, Evoken sound slow, but they move between the death and the doom in their death/doom with marked fluidity, breaking suddenly at 8:50 to an open-spaced guitar line that leads back to the lumbering dirge of the song’s beginnings, which is topped with one of the album’s best and most emotionally visceral guitar solos – echoing tones playing out an ethereal blues that soon gives way to the no-less-mournful piano warble of “A Tenebrous Vision.” Either I’m imagining things (possible), or there’s an effect on there to make Zaros’ lines sound like they were recorded 100 years ago. It’s not fake crackle, but there’s something there, severe and older.

The centerpiece duo of “Grim Eloquence” (the shortest non-interlude track at 9:40) and “An Extrinsic Divide” provide some of Atra Mors’ highlight moments, the former casting itself early into a sea of contrasting soft guitar lead notes, double-kick bass and long-held synth. Verkay and Wagner do well holding the early stretch of “Grim Eloquence” together, while Paradiso unleashes a barrage of growls and screams, until a minute and a half in the action breaks into an ambient stretch of low-end bubbling and echoed synth strings. Until the vocals kick back in, it could be classic goth metal, but Evoken are never far from extremity either in their pacing or their approach. Lower gurgling continues with the song on top, adding a kind of subtle, ultra-black psychedelia, but they’re gone by the next bridge and the spoken part that comes with it. An interplay between tense speech and no-less-tense growling ensues, the music following suit by switching off between quiet and loud guitars, with the quiet eventually winning out as an echoing growl gives way to the solo section, which rests somewhere between “Grim Eloquence” at its heaviest and its quietest. Both Paradiso and Molinari seem to take leads here, and though it’s shorter, “Grim Eloquence” is arguably also Atra Mors’ most complex track, eventually rounding itself out in a transition between more chugging death metal and airy, plodding grief, the guitars and synth lining up to convey a simple but lush melody. Some backwards guitar is infused into the opening of “An Extrinsic Divide,” but it’s hardly Evoken gone psychedelic, the 10-minute track instead stepping back from the complexity of its predecessor. The opening and closing of the song are roughly the same, and though in between, the band transitions between a quicker plod and a bass-led section of noise-infused weirdness, the progression feels much more linear than it did on “Grim Eloquence.” It’s not predictable, but the band feels more in control of the song structurally, which makes it well-placed in terms of the tracklisting as well, the death metal progression that begins at 7:13 and runs for about the next 30 seconds is a sign alone of Evoken’s builds within builds, the tracks working in layers of tension and release to go with that of the album altogether. As ever, it’s the melody and the doom together that carry them out, making for an easy transition into the acoustic-led “Requies Aeterna.”

With each song having such a personality of its own, I’m not exactly sure what breaking them into pairs accomplishes, but it does make the whole of Atra Mors more accessible, if such a thing can be said of this kind of extreme music. It’s curious though, because following the strums and strings of “Requies Aeterna,” the record ends with two of its most distinctive songs in “The Unechoing Dread” – begun with its guitar line, a fierce rumble beneath and a long scream – and closer “Into Aphotic Devastation” – the synth line of which feels decidedly more horror-based in its atmosphere. Paradiso works spoken verses into “The Unechoing Dread” while also answering back in growls and Verkay does an excellent job grounding the progression with his fills and quick cymbal shifts, one measure on his ride, the next crashing. The song has kind of droning layers of clean singing, the only time that happens on the album, and moves into pure desolation later on as the “final breath” is announced in the lyrics, before Zaros’ synth leads into an extended fadeout, the guitars seeming to remain up for wistful leads, but in turn also giving way to silence. This, just a few seconds before layers of synth strings open “Into Aphotic Devastation,” the violin line soon picked up by the guitar and the molten groove of the song set. After a shift into a synthless movement of tension-building riffs and swirling echoed vocals, Evoken break to quiet guitars and the keys are reintroduced with a theremin-like quality that they hold to for the remaining six minutes, even as the song breaks and gets heavy again. The force with which Atra Mors’ final track lands – it’s some of Wagner’s best bass – is emblematic of the quality of the record’s doomed sprawl, a flourish like the violin returning at the halfway point showing that although they’ve undoubtedly put their powers to use for evil purposes, Evoken are capable songwriters as well. “Into Aphotic Devastation” has more horror-cinema touches – some Moog sounds, creepy guitars, etc. – and it ends without letting go of that style of ambience, a cymbal wash leaving the synth as the last sound heard. That’s fitting, given the huge role Zaros plays throughout Atra Mors, but all the elements at work in Evoken’s sound are put to excellent use in service of these songs. Given the extremity-friendly climate in which Atra Mors arrives and the prestige that issue via Profound Lore (rightly) brings, I’ve no doubt it will be seen by many as Evoken’s defining statement, and in that, they’ve done well to craft a full-length worthy of their legacy.

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One Response to “Evoken, Atra Mors: Through the Dark Gates”

  1. Dave says:

    Great review!! Possibly the greatest Funeral Doom Metal album ever released! Completely crushing from start to finish!!

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