The real challenge when it comes to SubRosa‘s fourth album, For this We Fought the Battle of Ages, is in trying to listen to it without giving in to absolute hyperbole. Released through Profound Lore as the follow-up to the Salt Lake City five-piece’s 2013 moment of arrival, More Constant than the Gods, it is a triumph of songwriting and construction that feels so complete, showcases such breadth and depth throughout its six tracks, and that seems to reach into such a soulfulness, that one is inclined to apply only the grandest of statements to it. Taking inspiration from the 1924 Soviet dystopian novel We by Yevgeny Zamyatin, it sounds nonetheless personal to a point of being visceral, and that might be the element of influence it most shares with post-metal progenitors Neurosis.
It would be a mistake to call SubRosa‘s songwriting anything other than thoughtful, but it is by no means overly cerebral or cold in the way that a lot of post-metal can be, and in place of self-indulgence it engages with gorgeous arrangements of melodic strings and vocals, executed with poise, memorable lines and an emotional density that meshes in fluidity with the heft of tone found in the guitar, bass and drums.
With the lineup of guitarist/vocalist Rebecca Vernon, violinist/vocalist Sarah Pendleton, violinist/backing vocalist Kim Pack, bassist/vocalist Levi Hanna and drummer/engineer Andy Patterson (ex-Iota), as well as a host of guests adding flute, sax, French horn, vocals, etc. to the arrangements, SubRosa present a bold sonic vision, refined through a clear linear progression across their prior outings, 2008’s Strega debut on I Hate Records and their first for Profound Lore, 2011’s No Help for the Mighty Ones (review here), as well as More Constant than the Gods, but at the same time completely outstripping anything they’ve done before. For this We Fought the Battle of Ages is a significant achievement, pushing the band and their genre into yet-uncovered ground.
See what I mean about the hyperbole? It’s true though. With just six tracks (one of which is under two minutes long), For this We Fought the Battle of Ages spreads across a completely-earned 64 minutes. It begins with three side-consuming cuts, “Despair is a Siren” (15:25), “Wound of the Warden” (13:28) and “Black Majesty” (15:22), and each offers enough scope for a full-length album on its own. It’s not just about trading off loud parts and quiet parts — it’s about how SubRosa create worlds and use them to convey a resonant narrative.
On a more basic level, it’s also about the violins playing off the guitar, the intertwining vocal lines, Hanna‘s bassline in the beginning of “Wound of the Warden” and Patterson‘s Jason Roeder-worthy creativity on drums punctuating the dramas and meditations brought to bear, but principally it’s about those dramas themselves. One might look at the titles of the first three songs or “Il Cappio” (1:37), “Killing Rapture” (10:32) and “Troubled Cells” (7:38), which follow, and think the overriding mood would be pretty dark, and it’s true there’s no shortage throughout of tumult and longing and lines like those in the final movement of “Despair is a Siren” about sleeping in glass chambers, but particularly from “Il Cappio” onward, there’s also love.
After a stunning apex in “Troubled Cells,” the album ends on the line “Paradise is a lie if you’re not by my side,” and that’s no less telling about the overall perspective from which it’s working than how “Black Majesty” stares into a lonely, calculating abyss or how “Wound of the Warden” seems to take on the voice of an oppressor and set about justifications that feel all too familiar and are no doubt intended to do just that. Even so, there’s beauty at hand in the violins of “Wound of the Warden” or in the rhythmic crunch of “Despair is a Siren,” and “Black Majesty” seems to provide a culmination for this duality in its theme, taking the beauty in darkness head-on. Through all this impeccably-mixed struggle, SubRosa retain their sense of dynamic and their command, Vernon‘s vocals a center around which all can churn and gather and, eventually dissipate.
“Il Cappio” — translated to “the noose” — begins what would likely be the final side of the 2LP and is delivered by Pendleton in Italian over what sounds like plucked violin strings. I don’t speak the language, and I don’t have a lyric sheet to go from, but it seems an awful lot like the noose in question might be love itself. Either way, “Il Cappio” works as more than interlude or as an introduction for “Killing Rapture” (though that has a verse in Italian as well, further linking the two), the opening roll of which seems to explode in comparison. Right around its midpoint, “Killing Rapture” transitions from that initial lumbering to a frenetic turbulence of drums, guitar, bass and violin, creating a tension that, while it develops a groove, seems to grip even tighter when the vocals return as the double-kick starts beneath. When it finally opens whatever release valve the pressure has been building behind, the effect is more relief than rush, SubRosa breaking for a moment before resuming the dirge that started them off as a finish, giving way to the quieter beginning of “Troubled Cells,” which brings vocals forward as it unfolds and rightly so.
The band often get tagged as being goth, and mournful melodies like that in “Troubled Cells” are probably part of why. That’s fine so long as one realizes that being “goth” doesn’t take away from their being progressive, or deeply affecting, or honest in a way that goth’s performative aspects might seem to contradict. In its final three minutes, “Troubled Cells” begins the push toward its and the record’s final crescendo, building a vocal call and response, meeting the lines “There is no greater good” with “Paradise is a lie if we have to burn you at the stake to get inside” before shifting to the already-noted “Paradise is a lie if you’re not by my side,” with one voice over just guitar as a closing statement before a reprise of guitar and violin from the intro end the song.
It is important to understand the massiveness of this work. Of the many impressive aspects of For this We Fought the Battle of Ages, its spectrum-consuming range might be the most pivotal, but SubRosa‘s delivery retains a raw emotive spirit that carries through the entire 64-minute run, instrumentally as well as vocally. That forms the core of the sonic identity; complex, dark, beautiful and crushing and utterly essential. Might be album of the year. Recommended.