As a metal journalist and critic, I occasionally run into albums that are so fucking good that they’re confounding. No amount of hyperbole will suffice with which to convey the brilliance of their myriad layers and intricacies. Such is the case with The Book of Kings, the fourth full length from Australian funeral doom practitioners Mournful Congregation. In listening to it, I feel as if my meager skills as a wordsmith are completely incapable of describing such a masterful recording, and yet I’m still compelled to spill the digital ink in service of this great work.
I’m compelled because The Book of Kings is absolutely mesmerizing. Mournful Congregation is one of those rare bands that creates worlds with their music, which in turn means that The Book of Kings isn’t an album you listen to casually, it is an album you experience firsthand. An astral projection into the deepest, darkest depths of the roiling void.
But how does Mournful Congregation accomplish this musical out-of-body experience? By creating an atmosphere that is both primal and complex, appealing to both the head and heart. The arrangements may appear simple upon cursory listens, but listen closer. Listen to the sustained drones that ebb and flow throughout the album’s almost eighty minute run-time, creating a rich tonal backdrop for Mournful Congregation’s dynamic take on funeral doom. The drone is one of the oldest harmonic devices in music; it resonates with the most primeval parts of the human soul and casts a hypnotic spell upon the brain. Here, the drone is just one part of a broad musical palette, the foundation upon which the band builds those aforementioned worlds.
Soaring gracefully above and sometimes merging with the drone is the lead guitar, which often sounds like the New Wave of British Heavy Metal on quaaludes, shredding away lethargically through endless caverns of sound. The leads act as hooks within Mournful Congregation’s lengthy compositions, latching onto your astral body and burrowing in deep, drawing it out of its physical confines and into the ethereal realm the band’s music inhabits. But all this talk of astral projection and ethereality isn’t meant to paint The Book of Kings as light or airy. Quite the opposite; the album is incredibly dense and overpoweringly heavy, yet there is a haunting, ritualistic quality to it that causes me to imagine leaving my body behind and venturing into the realms of the spirit (although I am an avowed atheist, this doesn’t prevent me from believing in the paranormal) on some kind of ghostly journey into the black.
Earlier, I stated that Mournful Congregation’s funeral doom was dynamic. Dynamics probably aren’t the first thing that comes to mind when one thinks about this style of music, but that’s what separates Mournful Congregation from the pack and pushes them into the genre’s upper echelons. The tempos of The Book of Kings may be sluggish, but sluggishness doesn’t equal stasis. The songs drift like storms, with the drums acting as thunder behind the rolling obsidian clouds of distortion, slowly driving each of the four lengthy tracks and acting as an anchor to the earthly plane, lest one should stray too far into the album’s crushing musical abyss. The vocals range from a deathly growl, to a whisper, to a droning chant that falls somewhere between sacred music and gothic rock, providing the album with an eerie narrative of dark spirituality. Guitars take on innumerable forms; soothing acoustic arpeggios give way to colossal distorted chords and those fantastic leads that act as your guide through the phantasmagoric audial dimensions.
In listening to The Book of Kings, one gets the feeling that if you were to strip the songs down to just vocals and the aforementioned acoustic guitars, they’d still be every bit as compelling. This is evidenced by “The Bitter Veils of Solemnity,” an all-acoustic track that’s every bit as rife with emotional heft, in spite of its lack of musical weight relative to the rest of the album. In this respect, Mournful Congregation are just as indebted to folk music as they are to their doom metal forefathers, and there is a subtle earthiness and warmth at work here that contrasts itself with the album’s otherworldly traits. It serves as a reminder that no matter how far we may venture into the realms of the unreal, we are still tethered to this primitive physical existence.
Ultimately, The Book of Kings is the most stunning and soulful metal album I’ve heard this year, an unearthly invocation of sorrowful majesty. But sorrowful and depressive though it may be, it doesn’t make me feel that way. Instead I find it quite soothing, an escape to a higher level of consciousness through art, worlds away from the mountains of bullshit that threaten to overwhelm and suffocate me on a daily basis. Mournful Congregation have crafted a doom metal gesamtkunstwerk, an album that not only exemplifies the genre but ultimately transcends it. Hail to the kings.