Akercocke, the celebrated masters of Dark and twisted British extreme metal make a triumphant return with their new studio album Renaissance in Extremis. Due for release on Peaceville on 25th August
- Dom Lawson - Metal Hammer
Despite enduring through three decades of mainstream indifference, the extreme metal underground continues to thrive, not least due to the contribution of its most adventurous and idiosyncratic bands. Towering above the vast majority of nefarious contemporary noisemakers, Akercocke erupted across the consciousness of the UK metal scene in the late ‘90s, wielding a fiendishly inventive blend of death, black and progressive metal that confounded and delighted in equal measure. Their distinctive, smartly-dressed demeanour and eloquent preoccupation with all things dark and Satanic marked them out both as ferociously individual artists and enlightened students of the pitch-black sonic code. Immediately embraced by the British faithful upon the release of debut album Rape Of The Bastard Nazarene, Akercocke spent the following decade leading the creative charge for their entire native scene.
With a sound that combined the most primitive and visceral riffing with the labyrinthine structures of progressive rock and the synapse-tickling perversity of the avant-garde, there was simply no one else like them as the 21st century gathered pace. Widely acknowledged as a devastating live act, they received widespread acclaim for records like 2003’s Choronzon and its wildly progressive follow-up Words That Go Unspoken… Deeds That Go Undone in 2006 and became a much-revered fixture on the European tour circuit. But despite enjoying furious momentum, the release of fifth album Antichrist in 2007 signalled the end of the first chapter of the Akercocke story: within months of its release, the band retreated into the shadows and remained dormant for the best part of a decade.
Fast forward to 2017 and Akercocke’s ongoing return to active service has reached its first invigorating climax. Much to the surprise of all who mourned the band’s quiet demise, 2016 saw frontman and vocalist Jason Mendonca reconvening with drummer David Gray and returning original second guitarist Paul Scanlan to reignite the flames that first drove this band to deftly redefine an entire genre. Fans of mind-expanding extremity celebrated as news broke that Akercocke would be making a return to live action at Bloodstock Open Air in August 2016 and that a new album, the band’s first in a decade, was very much in the works.
“Essentially, the time was right. The members of the band were all collectively at a stage where we had the space and the time to give the band the attention and the focus that was needed,” Jason explains. “It was simply that the component members’ schedules and lives allowed the time for the indulgence of the band. But we had no idea what the reception would be. Coming back to Bloodstock was a trifle daunting. You do these things for years but when you step away, it’s like any discipline – you need to get back up to speed with how things roll. But no, our first gig back was on the main stage at Bloodstock! It’s an overused phrase, but it was genuinely humbling. When the crowd were chanting ‘Welcome back’ between the songs, we were all touched beyond belief. It was a really enlivening and wonderful thing.”
Emboldened by the ecstatic reception they received at Bloodstock, Jason and his comrades duly embarked on their first headline tour in a decade, while maintaining focus on the creation of brand new Akercocke music. Collectively buoyed by a renewed sense of purpose, the band are now finally ready to show the world what they have been working on since joining forces for a new campaign. Mixed by legendary studio guru Neil Kernon [Nile/Deicide/Usurper], Renaissance In Extremis is nothing short of a new dawn for these most eccentric of extremists.
“In the very early days of the band, probably for the first three and some of the fourth album, we wrote collectively,” Jason explains. “ Someone would pitch up to the rehearsal room with an idea and we’d chip in to come up with a finished song. This time, I’ve had these old songs kicking around, songs that we wrote in 2007 and 2008, and we used them as a starting point, just to get a foothold and to re-establish ourselves as connected musicians. After we put the individual members’ contributions on those raw ideas and sketches, they ended up making it to this record. Meanwhile, Paul has always been a tremendously prolific writer and he had a wealth of material to use. I think the songs that he contributed to the record show a real depth and maturity of understanding. To get behind that has been a challenge but a really welcome one.”
Both a vivid reminder of precisely why Akercocke were so revered first time round and a comprehensive reinvention and expansion of the band’s multifarious sound, Renaissance In Extremis delivers countless moments of euphoric force and mind-boggling weirdness. There are scything thrash and death metal riffs in abundance: weapons that Akercocke have certainly used before but never with this much celebratory abandon or intensity. There are warped but elegant melodies and clouds of ugly dissonance; moments of unsettling calm and quiet; ornate but obtuse structural side-steps and inspired mid-song evolutions. Amid the whole scabrous melee there are meticulous but unapologetic nods to the likes of Maiden, Rush, Suffocation and Autopsy, but in keeping with their unerring reputation for smashing boundaries and disregarding rules, it is an album that seems to exist entirely apart from the marauding hordes of death and black metal. Instead, Renaissance In Extremis is a bold, bullish and belligerent statement of creative intent: metal’s dark spirit reborn in an explosion of bright ideas and inspirational fury.
“It’s about making music that turns us on,” says Jason. “That was always our raison d’etre, to make music that excites us. The tempo of the songwriting always changed from album to album to try and maintain that level of interest and excitement and humour, and this album is no exception to that. We’re different people now but the essential core idea about making music that makes us smile or makes us feel something, that’s never gone away. I’m really happy that we’ve been able to put something together that allows those dynamics and elements to enrich the songs and enable it to become more of a whole.”
While their musical motivation may remain the same, it is undeniable that Renaissance In Extremis presents a very different conceptual vision than the predominantly infernal themes that dominated the first five Akercocke albums. The aggression and twisted obstinacy of those early albums still lurks within these extraordinary new songs, but the passing of time has imbued Jason and his comrades with a newfound collective outlook that eschews metaphor and malice in favour of something far more stimulating.
“This album is from the heart,” Jason states. “Not that the old ones weren’t, but the motivation is different this time. I think this is the first album that has any semblance of hope within it. I think there’s been a paradigm shift and that need for metaphorical explanation has now gone. If anyone’s interested in what Akercocke does, we can use that interest as a mechanism to communicate things that are of a different meaning. The people who made this record were at a much better place in their lives and I think that comes through and can be summarised, somewhat obliquely, as ‘positivity’.”
Masters of the vicious and the cerebral, Akercocke are defying the law of cynical comebacks by returning with greater power, belief and intensity than ever before. Renaissance In Extremis is not just an imperious return: it’s a majestic, extreme metal masterpiece and, most importantly, the thrilling rebirth of one of the most distinctive and artistically fearless bands in metal history.
“We’re having so much fun right now. It feels like Akercocke version 2!” laughs Jason. “I feel that we are very much at the beginning of something that’s genuinely excited me. We’re already discussing what’s coming next and we haven’t even toured this album yet, and that’s a great omen for the future. This isn’t a flash in the pan reformation of some old bastards… No, we’re really enjoying this again and for the right reasons, so why not perpetuate that and see how weird and wonderful we can make it next time!”