For the past several years, I’ve felt very close to death. No matter what direction life has taken me in, it seems that death is there to meet me at every turn, taking away family, friends and acquaintances with a disturbing frequency. In the past month alone both my cousin and an old college professor have passed from this mortal coil, both well before their time. This increasing familiarity with death has indeed bred contempt; contempt for the callousness and randomness with which it has wrenched my loved ones from this already painful existence. Of course, no one in their right mind is fond of death, but the inordinate number of deaths I’ve had to weather recently has served to make me despise life’s final chapter that much more, if such a thing is possible.
Yet in spite of my heightened abhorrence towards the Reaper’s cruel scythe, I find myself drawn to Evoken’s Atra Mors, an album that is death personified. It’s the kind of album where I can lay back, close my eyes and let its crawling black distortion envelop me totally. The New Jersey based funeral doom quintet have crafted a recording that drags you down into the deepest recesses of death’s domain, and in spite of everything I’ve written in the first paragraph of this review, I find myself welcoming its embrace.
Combining elements of death metal, doom and gothic rock, Evoken have quite literally composed a symphony for death that’s frightening and beautiful and mesmerizing all at once. Atra Mors is beyond oppressively heavy, the guitars and drums moving at a mostly glacial pace, while ’70s flavored synths meander like lost souls haunting a desolate graveyard. The cavernous vocals seem to echo up from deep within some long forgotten tomb, exhorting maledictions rife with unending tragedy and despair. I stated earlier that death is callous and random, but this certainly isn’t true of Evoken’s vision of death; Atra Mors is probably the most emotional metal listening experience I’ve had this year, dripping as it is with a sense of utter hopelessness and loss, a musical void from which no light can escape.
To be sure, there is no shortage of darkness and anguish to be found within the suffocating confines of Atra Mors, but there is also a sense of majesty. The album possesses a stately grandeur swathed in pestilence, like a mausoleum full of plague victims. Of course, there is no real dignity in death; the music’s decaying splendor is betrayed by lyrics such as “I will unlock the mysteries of this universe / not within the heated stars, but below the consecrated churchyards / cold in misery and disdain / For it is not the singing of angels that beckon, but the feral groans of death.” Death is life’s last great mystery, but it is not one that most rational men would look forward to solving. Beneath the carefully constructed layers of Atra Mors, the members of Evoken understand that there’s nothing glorious or joyful about death, that the people who say “well, at least he’s in a better place now” are full of shit. Death is an awful journey; terrifying for the deceased, devastating for those left behind. Atra Mors is the soundtrack to that terror and devastation.
It’s been said to the point of becoming a tired cliché that grieving is a process, but I honestly think this is why I am so compelled to keep returning to Atra Mors, in spite of the many losses I’ve suffered throughout these last few years of life. In some bizarre way, Evoken’s music has become part of my grieving process, helping me to cope and remember that others share similar experiences with death and the spectrum of awful feelings (depression, denial, guilt, anger, etc.) that come with it. It has brought me closer to an understanding; though I will never fully accept death, at least I can take some solace within art created by those who’s thoughts and feelings on the subject so closely mirror my own. There are plenty of metal albums out there that appeal to us because they “rock” or “shred” or pile riff upon riff, but there are precious few that genuinely affect us on an emotional and spiritual level. Atra Mors is just such an album.