Heart of Silence by At the Altar of the Horned God

Release date: March 3, 2023
Label: I, Voidhanger Records

At the Altar of the Horned God return with a new album, Heart of Silence, their first since 2020’s debut Through Doors of Moonlight.  That was a record that saw an added atmospheric groove being added to the artistic repertoire of Heolstor, the project’s sole mastermind. They are similarly the single member of their other creative vehicle, Mystagos.

Through Doors of Moonlight was a record that also embedded a far more overt influence of folk throughout the project’s sound, as well as adding subtle elements of dark ambience and psychedelia into the overall constellation of audio experimentation. It was something that utterly bewitched me from its mystical opening to its triumphant end.

The press pack for the new album promised more of the same, an expansion of that metaphysical make up and innovative approach, but with a greater focus back on a unique meditation on the fundamental ritualistic, occult sources of black metal. Heart of Silence is the result of this compositional focus – an album of eight tracks averaging a cool five minutes each.

The Spanish musician at the heart of this endeavour is clearly a big fan of the darker reaches of Dead Can Dance’s magnetic catalogue, as well as the purposeful, measured and distinctly gothic and grandiose black metal approach of bands such as Arckanum, Urfaust, and their ilk. At the Altar of the Horned God takes these influences and stirs this pool of visionary work to present a kaleidoscopic marbled tapestry to the unwitting listener.

Overall, the sophomore LP from At the Altar of the Horned God is a very welcome and wholly successful return. It’s an album that feels ambitious and grand in sound and execution, while maintaining a primitive and emotional intimacy with its intended audience. This is evidenced on the mesmerising opening track ‘Listen’ which immediately calls for undivided, rapt attention, as well as on the luminescent ‘God is in the Rain’, a bewitching near six-minute epic which employs delicious strings and an undulating drum pattern that carries the listener away from this mortal coil. At its best, Heart of Silence transports us away from reality and into a dimension soaked in reverb, vibrations both tense and calming, and a black metal splintered into a pantheon of colour.

However, it’s with ‘God is in the Rain’s more expansive approach, both compositionally and its’ literal running time, that one wonders whether Heolstor could push At the Altar of the Horned God even further, allowing their creations to be even more spacious, sweeping, and all-embracing. The title track, for example, sounds like it had plenty more milage in it. In many ways, it feels like the momentum it has purposefully, carefully, exquisitely built up has been undone, commuted needlessly and hastily, denying us the full payoff we were hoping we were worthy of.

A similar criticism could be levelled at the album’s closing vigil, ‘Severing Light’, which chooses to fade out, rather than explore additional textures, traverse more folk and/or black metal twists and turns, before its summation. Needless to say, it’s sometimes a smart idea to keep a song concise, or not oversaturate a song with a wondrous riff, but with these two examples – and some smaller niggles elsewhere – it feels like Heolstor elected to choose brevity over the evocative, all-encompassing mysticism that the project seems to demand.

It should be noted that this criticism is, at its core, a cry for more fantastic material above all else. The instrumentals on offer are sumptuous and have compositional and sentimental layers that run contrary to their initial surface-level simplicity. There is just a desire to be given more. It’s a critique I do feel can be apportioned to the debut LP, but it seems all the more prescient on this project. Through Doors of Moonlight felt very self-contained and a new voice in the world of folk meets black metal. Heart of Silence is an extraordinary follow-up and does build on the foundations of the past. I just wonder whether it could have built higher toward heaven.

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