REVIEW: ASCENSION OF THE WATCHERS – “Apocrypha”
Spin-offs and side projects can offer alternative outlets for artists seeking new, creative terrain. Some are a flash in the pan, others can take on a life of their own, becoming beloved continuations of artistic evolution. For industrial metal pioneers Fear Factory, their renowned vocalist Burton C. Bell’s side project, Ascension of the Watchers, became a critically important continuation for him over a decade ago. Now in 2020, Bell has resurrected Ascension of the Watchers, and it looks like it might well become Bell’s main creative endeavour. With a compelling new album, ‘Apocrypha’ set for release October 9th, it’s easy to see why Bell seems to be gravitating so strongly in this direction.
Musically, ‘Apocrypha’ is decorated with ambient melodies and tense atmospheres that echo some of the more memorable gothic industrial sounds of the mid-’80s and early ’90s. Opening track and first single, “Ghost Heart,” evokes the thrill of gothic, cult classic movie soundtracks such as The Crow, referencing artists like Machines of Loving Grace, Violent Femmes, and The Cure at their broody best. “Key To The Cosmos” could have easily made for a strong leading single were it not for its near seven-minute running time. Meanwhile, songs such as “The End Is Always The Beginning” and “Stormcrow” masterfully capture the sound and feel of early Killing Joke. Which should come as no surprise considering Bell’s musical partner in Ascension of the Watchers is former Killing Joke member, keyboardist John Bechdel.
If directly referencing the collection of apocryphal scriptures rejected by Biblical scholars for inclusion in the Bible, ‘Apocrypha’ plays down any obvious religious connotations. Instead, lyrically, it works hard to draw hearts, minds and spirits into a celebration and reflection on the beauty of existence. A tall order, but if ‘Apocrypha’ doesn’t quite succeed on its first spin, it might well get there after a few more. Here, Bell’s vocals don’t demand your attention in the way they do with Fear Factory. Instead, Bell exiles himself from the obvious spotlight in favour of a softer, more refined performance with a hint of organised gravel that can feel like listening in on a whispered conversation spoken in honeyed tones. Best realised in “Cygnus Aeon”, brought to life by drummer Jayce Lewis who compliments Bell’s vocals wonderfully. As well as on the album closer, “Sign Your Name,” an acoustic take on Terence Trent Darby’s 1987 classic offering a lengthy, sorrowful note that keeps you hanging on to Bell’s every word.
While ‘Apocrypha’ may ooze familiarity and harbour enough callouts to fill a hefty bibliography, it never feels like another bastardised musical hijack. Featuring a line-up, most of whom had a part to play in creating its sound, Ascension of the Watchers sound comfortable and at home on ‘Apocrypha’ which is expertly executed. Delivered with a sideways glance at Eighties Goth, if colourful ambience and melody hold court here, there’s still some genuine grit behind the glitter.