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.