Album Review: Imperial Triumphant – Spirit of Ecstasy

[Century Media; 2022]

It’s interesting to observe how architecture reflects on unstable times. Often funded by regional governments or ludicrously wealthy people, architecture has the purpose of serving people in the best possible ways. That makes it unique among artforms: while there might be works with the express notion of being transgressive or unpleasant, buildings aren’t merely aesthetic ventures: there always needs to be a function to them. This means that a building’s utility is equal to its aesthetics. And maybe that is why, when other art forms choose architecture as a topic, these fictions revolve around those buildings prioritizing an aesthetic to the structure’s utility. In other words, even if those spaces are inhabitable, the gradually reveal themselves as serving other intentions. There’s many reasons for this, which directly relate to the chosen perspective within the work: from a child’s fear of cosmic proportions to the dissolution of a family unit and the uncertain and horrific implications in a nation savaged by political turmoil. There’s something that, in an almost hideous way, binds us to those giants of concrete within city landscapes, as David Bowie and Clive Barker very accurately remarked on “Thru’ These Architects Eyes” and The Midnight Meat Train respectively. But what if that silent relationship turns into something more sinister?

Right now, there’s no other project that manages to convey the nature of man’s unconscious co-dependency of architecture as Imperial Triumphant. The New York trio have carved a gold-painted labyrinth of retro-futurist visions with their previous two albums, the excellent Vile Luxury and Alphaville, which conjured the spectres of a host of fictional metropolitan cities that, in themselves, fold back into the Art Deco vision of a silent age New York frozen in an eternal golden era. Gotham, Metropolis and Alphaville become haunting visions of angular street corners and endless skyscrapers. The band takes the role of ceremonial masters, a crude but impressive mixture of Lovecraftian cult and Eyes Wide Shut, to present a music that defies genre recognition: it’s as much jazz as it is black metal, but also features influences of no wave, opera, avant garde (the band covered The Residents on their last record) and 1920s film scores. In other words, it is uniquely New York. 

They’re also the most exciting and innovative metal group in recent memory, certainly since Deafheaven hit the scene. Spirit of Ecstasy not only proves them to be deserving of all this praise, it also establishes a new gold standard for the group and the black metal genre itself: it’s a cataclysmic work, filled with dark alleyways and shining stage lights, as abrasive as it is listenable. It defies expectations with a clean sound that invites listeners in, but likewise indulges in even more sonic experimentation, jazz interplay and arcane atmosphere than anything the trio have done before. It also features the most insane metal feature in recent memory, with Kenny G playing an unhinged sax on “Merkurius Gilded”, and prominently displays a black model as cover star. Neither is something one sees often in the genre.

Artistically, the album is as dense as can be expected from the group. Lead vocalist Zachary Ezrin’s lines remain fragmentary shards of expressionist poetry, lamenting the soulless rise of wondrous machines and ominously suggesting cultish activity in grotesque cityscapes. Not much has changed in this regard, but his vocal delivery is even more anguished and nuanced. The low growl of Alphaville has morphed into a few variants, resembling Darkthrone’s vocals. With the freakish, industrial spoken-word piece “Bezumnaya”, Ezrin is provided a perfect outlet to indulge in a more performative manner, giving the song the feeling of an audio play. “Metrovertigo” has a hellishly wonderful development of the protagonist’s grim anger into a climactic reverberated scream. 

Ezrin has also developed his already fantastic guitar skills – not just in playing but also in presentation. At times, his guitar chronicles a scale of pompous euphoria usually reserved for video game soundtracks. The mid-song riffs on “Tower of Glory, City of Shame” are a perfect example of this, penetrating the larger composition like golden lights, which cut through the shadows of the previous, demented carnival see-saw that opened the song. This dynamic of atmospheric tenderness is, again, not unfamiliar to a band that has often used film noir-style jazz interludes, but on Spirit of Ecstasy it’s taken even further, with the Hollywood strings of Merkurius Gilded accompanying the heavier portions of the song, without ever being crushed by the maelstrom, finally making way for Kenny G’s utterly insane saxophone part, and, later on, a faux-sci-fi chorus.

In most metal, these elements often remain as Arabesques – sort of short moments of reprieve musicians add into the surrounding noise to insinuate a form of progression, but they rarely make sense dynamically. Imperial Triumphant have always had a larger ambition with them, managing to integrate them artfully and with clear purpose, but on their newest they become the very compositional backbone and foundational pillars for the madness that surrounds them. “Tower of Glory, City of Shame”, which opens with a (faux?) newsreel sample, is a good example of this, creating this immediate sense of an imaginary film, just as “Bezumnaya” feels like some unholy found recording of a ritual whose meaning is long lost. On that track’s predecessor, “In the Pleasure of their Company”, the band even suggests an alternative for somewhat Lovecraftian jazz that previous instrumentals only hinted at, which flows perfectly into Ezrin’s more cultish ramblings.

Writing about Spirit of Ecstasy does it little justice because it is such a suggestive experience. Often, it directly connects with the listener’s nostalgia for the silent era, more so than the gold-coated Alphaville. But just as the cover suggests, the band almost seems to hint at a fictionalized alternate universe, where the rampant racism of that era was absent, ominous cults surrendered their lives to machine gods and the lines between genius are insanity have become unrecognizable. Where Abyssal Gods was concerned with stone, Vile Luxury with coal and Alphaville with gold, Spirit of Ecstasy seems more concerned with chrome or silver – maybe even mercury. There’s a cold glow here, allowing for reflections and at times even sensuality and malleability their other works only hinted at. The previously icy jazz is now infernal and the ghosts of Shellac recordings are removed from their medium – it’s not just a reference brought via filter or trickery. 

The band has included champagne in some of their performances, gushing it into the mouths of the crowd, but this new album really conjures the beverage’s taste and sparkle at times – the songs are almost perfumed in the smell of a past that has never existed beyond our fantasy. And, as scary as some of it sounds, it’s also faintly erotic. “Maximalist Scream” and “Death on a Highway”, with their slithering melodies and pummelling rhythms, almost feel like suggesting the perverse pleasures found in JG Ballard’s and David Cronenberg’s Crash – the car accident as climactic drive towards the union of Eros and Thanatos, the guitars aping screeching breaks.

In that, Spirit of Ecstasy never feels like a lockdown record. It’s not even remotely as claustrophobic as the band’s previous masterpieces, and also not as pessimistic. It’s filled with a sense of dark euphoria more akin to one of their influences, the grim no wave lords Swans. It’s the same sense of cosmic awe in the faces of children when they lay eyes on sky high towers of steel and glass, or an old man touching the front of his resurrected old-timer car, but also in the eyes of a Lovecraft protagonist as he is faced with god-like beings his mind can’t fathom. It’s an energy that sucks you in, and won’t let you go – it actually is, like the name suggests – ecstatic. It’s hard to believe this band is not part of some arcane plan to bring forth a new golden age with their music; to change not just metal, but conjure a process to alter the world itself. And that’s exciting like nothing else.