REVIEW: PRIMORDIAL – “Exile Amongst The Ruins”
There are few bands that are nearly universally known to produce consistent, passionate, and sincere albums. Dublin’s Primordial is most certainly one of those bands. Now in their 27th year of existence, they are releasing their 9th full length album, ‘Exile Amongst The Ruins,’ at the end of March, and it is one of the strongest albums of their career. Their previous album, 2014’s ‘Where Greater Men Have Fallen,’ was a benchmark release, and I was rather curious to hear how they could follow it. While not quite on par with its predecessor, this new album has more than lived up to my expectations.
With a consistent lineup for their entire career, it is no surprise that Primordial have crafted a unique and signature sound all their own, a mixture of Celtic, black, and pagan metal that is held together by the impassioned vocals of A.A. Nemtheanga. It is also not a surprise that men so dedicated to their craft have continued to evolve and grow over the decades. While going back to a more raw and aggressive energy similar to their early output, they also include several songs that are unlike any others in their long career. Having fallen in love with their music since the first time I heard ‘To The Nameless Dead,’ hearing this album and its progression was pure joy. Thematically, while not having a concept, there is a thread that runs through several of the songs (as well as the album title). Nemtheanga explains: ‘I’ve thought a lot about the loss of our ancient European magical systems, our spirituality and our suicidal headlong journey into amoralism and decadence, which is where the title comes from. I’ve placed these against the values of the Enlightenment and classical civilization, and the people who want all countries under the yoke of an unelected federalist fiscal, political and cultural hegemony.’ Unlike many other artists who use their position to preach to the masses, Nemtheanga is content to do as he has often done and make observations, metaphors, and parallels with the past. The interpretation is left to the listener.
The album starts with “Nail Their Tongues’ and the ominous sound of tolling bells. It is archetypal Primordial and is bound to be a live staple for years to come. Following the bells the song begins with the gentle strumming of a clean guitar in a Celtic melody before the full weight of distortion and driving drums falls upon the listeners’ ears. The guitar work and composition style of guitarists Ciarán MacUilliam, and Michael O’Floinn is immediately recognizable and they weave a powerfully heavy, yet beautiful, tapestry which is held up by the steady hands of bassist Pól MacAmlaigh and drummer Simon O’Laoghaire. Nemtheanga’s vocals are, as always, powerful and capable of thrusting their metaphorical hand into your chest to rip your heart out. I was excited to hear more of his screamed vocals not only on this song, but throughout, than on recent albums. The sincerity and intensity of his delivery on this album is nearly on par with those of David Eugene Edwards (16 Horsepower and Wovenhand), and that is no small feat.
The song is followed up by “To Hell Or the Hangman” and was a bit puzzling upon the first couple of listens. Musically it is very straightforward, with a post-punk feel to it, the opening drums and guitar/bass sound almost like a galloping horse. The lyrics also struck me as a bit unusual for the band, telling the murderous tale of a jilted lover, again in a straightforward manner. Things began to fall into place after watching the recently released music video for it and reading the comment left by the label with an explanation from Nemtheanga. The song tells the story of Walter Lynch who in 1493 was hanged by his own father from the open window of his home into the street when the usual execution spot was blocked by an angry mob. Walter had, in a fit of jealous rage, murdered a Spanish nobleman over the love of a young woman. This bit of dark gothic romance grew on me after several listens and it holds together very well. Of course this change of style caused some controversy among fans that whine about any small change in “their” band, predicting that the whole album would follow suit and that they had, of course, sold out. I can only quote cinema’s favorite villain in response to such an idea: “I find your lack of faith disturbing.”
Hopefully the written explanation of the lyrics means that this album will include the short write ups that accompanied songs on many of their previous albums. Their last two did not include any such mini essays, so it will be exciting if they are included on the physical release.
We soon come to the one two punch of “Exile Amongst the Ruins” and “Upon Our Spiritual Deathbed” which make up the bulk of the themed songs mentioned previously. “Deathbed,” especially with its lyrics about the fall of empires and changing of the past, calls to mind their earlier songs “As Rome Burns” and “Empire Falls” and are lyrically and vocally among the best songs the band has produced yet. “Deathbed” starts quietly before slowly gaining in force and gradually building in energy and anger. The band does not rush things either, and there is a slow, and quieter middle section of the song to let one catch their breath before things pick up again and move into the chorus reprisals at the end. It finishes with venomous rasps, a fitting epitaph for a dying world.
This is followed by “Stolen Years” and “Sunken Lungs.” The latter is a tribute to the sea and those lost in it. It is classic Primordial in sound and composition and long time fans will undoubtedly find it to their liking. “Stolen Years” is a bit different, and unlike anything in their early catalogue, and was the first single and video for the album. It is quite short, just over five minutes, and starts off very slowly and quietly with simple strumming of the guitar before subdued vocals come in. The song builds in heaviness, but never to a very great extent, and is for all practical purposes a ballad. Thematically it’s about going out with friends, and loved ones, and our last days on earth. It’s a very simple and straightforward song, and a quiet reminder to hold those we love, as we never know if we will again. Its power is its simplicity and subtle nature and, while unusual, will hold an important place in the band’s career.
The album closes with the longest composition, the aptly named “Last Call.” Clocking in at over 10 minutes it is an unusual song, even on an album where the band has already been experimenting with their sound. It begins quietly with sparse drumming before the maelstrom begins, but the quiet is never far away and there are several times when the music drops off to near silence before a lengthy section of minimal quiet strumming comes back. It is in that way perhaps a more progressive feeling song, which is something I certainly appreciate. It includes some of the harshest and most impassioned vocals on the album as well. It takes its time, and never lets the listener get comfortable with the direction the song is going for very long. It is an unexpected, but perfect way to close out the album and well worth the time it might take to let it absorb.
Primordial have once again delivered an emotional and exquisitely executed album, and one that for me will be very hard to top for the best album of the year. ‘Exile Amongst The Ruins’ is a masterful statement, and while not quite the masterpieces that ‘Where Greater Men Have Fallen’ or ‘To The Nameless Dead’ are it is very, very close to those two works. It speaks to the heart and the head, and has the ability to make one rage or to weep. These sons of Ireland have no peer in their genre, and this album makes it very clear why.