Mournful Congregation – The Incubus of Karma Review

Band: Mournful Congregation
Album: The Incubus of Karma
Label: Osmose Productions
Genre: Funeral Doom Metal
Country: Australia
Release Date: 23 March, 2018

Within the realm of heavy metal, us metalheads have a plethora of subgenres almost devoted to specific emotions. From gloriously flamboyant power metal to carefree glam metal, metal bands covers all sides of the emotional perspective. However, I think most rational people can recognize that the world is not a very happy place. Lots of bad shit has happened in the past, the world sucks now, and it’s safe to say that it’s not going to get much better in the near future. So if you want to listen to music that is indicative of the world we live in, well then it sure can’t be too happy. Luckily, there is a metal subgenre for you, and that is funeral doom; a subgenre dedicated to depression, melancholy, and a general theme of sorrow. Arguably one of the very best funeral doom bands is also one of the subgenres best-known founders. They are Mournful Congregation, and they’ve released their next monolithic masterpiece fit to carve your heart out and stitch it back together, better and stronger than ever before. The Incubus of Karma is the four-pieces’ first album in the past seven years and it’s safe to say that although their overall tone has certainly changed, the band remains close enough to the core of their sound that there’s a comforting familiarity throughout the entire 80-minute runtime.

In my opinion, Mournful Congregation has always been one of the most tragic-sounding funeral doom bands. From their debut up to The Incubus of Karma, Mournful Congregation’s sound has always been characterized by low, droning guitar chords as heart-wrenching lead guitars wail above them. However, where other Mournful Congregation albums have placed quite a lot of prominence on the rhythm guitars in the past, The Incubus of Karma no longer holds to the same standard. Instead, from the getgo, listeners are greeted with dual lead guitar harmonies overtop a severely diminished rhythm guitar performance. This new take spans the whole the album, and although it is by no means a bad thing, it’s important to know that this results in quite a different sound from their prior records. In The Incubus of Karma, Mournful Congregation has struck the sweet spot between over-the-top shredding a-la Yngwie Malmsteen and the utter lack of solos in a strictly funeral doom band such as Bell Witch.

Starting with the opening track, The Indwelling Ascent, listeners hear a beautiful twin guitar harmony that is simultaneously heartbreaking while pleading with love. This sets up the interesting dichotomy of the album. I would argue that The Incubus of Karma is by every definition, a “funeral doom” album. However, unlike most of their contemporaries, the members of Mournful Congregation has decided to let a few rays of hope shine through their haze of misery. The Indwelling Ascent has a plodding, dirge-like tempo that is beautiful in its restrained minimalism. There’s nothing fancy going on with the instrumentation; the drums, rhythm guitar, and bass are all serving a complimentary on this record. Thus the focus is entirely on the guitar harmonies, and man they are beautiful. Particularly worthy of note in The Indwelling Ascent is the fact that both of the guitars have several opportunities to branch out and ruin the song, but luckily guitarists Damon Good and Justin Hartwig know where to draw the line. This shows a clear sign of maturation which is always good to hear from a band whose career has spanned two decades. Upon repeated listens, I should also point out that it sounds like there are a lot more effects on the lead guitar tone this time around, particularly reverb and echo. These two effects help lull the listener into a sense of melancholic calm during the opening track and lead perfectly into the title track that starts right after, The Incubus of Karma.

Like the opener, the title track of this album features a strong minimalist slant. The instrumental landscape is once again barren except for the acoustic rhythm guitar and dual guitar harmonies over the bass and drums. The track opens with a pretty minor chord progression played on the acoustic, then as it repeats, both of the lead guitars slowly pan in and begin their soliloquy of lament. This track features some neoclassical/prog rock influences in the guitar melodies, but luckily, they are played at 1/4 of their original tempo. This gives the song more memorable melodies than the opener while showing that the band has varied influences as they continue to exercise tasteful restraint. Another nice touch to Mournful Congregation’s title track is that the leads phase in and out during the five-minute duration of the song. They never overstay their welcome and make sure that after playing a few melodies, they tastefully slide in and out of the mix. This allows the song to carry more dynamics and feel like a much more emotional experience than the opener, which helps open the listeners mind up to the indisputable sonic masterpiece that is The Incubus of Karma.

The third track, “Whispering Spiritscapes,” is also the first one on the record to feature vocals. Beginning with an ode to the fallen with the exquisite guitar melodies, Damon Good’s cavernous howls soon rear their daemonic head by the 4-minute mark. Like every Mournful Congregation album, the vocals are by no means the focus, but Good’s tortured vocals are more than enough to provide the desolate background that is set throughout the record. Drenched in reverb, the vocals invoke images of storms of crows, barren fields, evaporated rivers, and a truly dead, silent world. But just as Good’s vocals and the guitars reach their climax, Mournful Congregation calms down and we enter an eerie spoken word passage courtesy of Tim Call. It only stays for about two-three minutes and only features his voice, the drums, and the bass, but it perfectly sets listeners up for the march to the gallows that summarizes the rest of the song. An interesting point to note about the vocals on this LP is that they seem to have noticeably more dynamics than the previous releases. They are still buried in the mix but Good makes sure to utilize his entire vocal range and decides to transition between torn screams and behemoth-like growls. This is something that listeners will be sure to appreciate more upon repeated listens because it allows for Mournful Congregation to utilize a cleaner and more subtle production. The song closes with plenty of melodious guitar lines and thunderous bellows that serve to put the listener at ease in their tragic coffin of doom. After the 15-minute track ends, listeners have left the false world of the living and now walk amongst the shades of yore through the rest of the album.

Skipping over the next forty minutes, the last track I want to talk about on this tragic album also happens to be the closing track that is a 22-minute long soundtrack to the apocalypse. With a name almost as long as the song itself, “A Picture Of The Devouring Gloom Devouring The Spheres Of Being” is a fantastic closer. The song begins with a clean guitar that utilizes a tasteful bit of reverb and echo and then drummer Tim Call enters with his graveyard march and the song gets a whole lot more depressing. Soon after call enters, the twin guitar melodies come back and begin the last of their tragic melodies. It’s a melody that could be considered as iconic to funeral doom as the bass melody at the beginning of Bell Witch’s Longing. Just like that melody, Mournful Congregation decides to stick with the same ominous melody throughout the majority of this song and it becomes one of the cornerstones of the record. Another great part of this closing track is that the lead guitars occasionally pan out of the mix again to make room for the somber clean guitars, which helps the guitars breath. I’d also like to point out the very post-rock/prog-rog-esque solo at the 15-minute mark in this song. Granted, it is much slower than the two genres it harks back to, but it remains my personal favorite moment on the album because it serves as the embodiment of all of the pleading love and tragic glory present within the record. Finally, this is and track four, “Scripture of Exaltation and Punishment,” are the only songs that feature notable droning rhythm guitar work, which is why I would consider them to be the most similar to Mournful Congregation’s early discography. Overall, “A Picture Of The Devouring Gloom Devouring The Spheres Of Being” is a fantastic way to close the album because it touches upon and refines everything the band had done for the 60 minutes leading up to it.

It’s at this point in the review that I have to mention the negatives of the album. Let me start out by saying that I think Mournful Congregation’s The Incubus of Karma is worthy of being on many album of the year lists by the end of the year. The record invokes a feeling of tragedy on a scale that I’ve only heard on Bell Witch’s Mirror Reaper. However, where Mirror Reaper was an 80-minute truly minimalist funeral dirge, The Incubus of Karma sounds more like a living and breathing soundtrack to a dying world. With that being said, on average, the song lengths on this record are massive: the shortest is 3 minutes (the intro) and the longest is a monolithic 22-minute track (the closer). As any funeral doom fan will know, the song and album length are what really make or break the final product. My main gripe with this record is that although it began with a very prominent minimalist slant, by the end listeners will come to realize that there’s a surprising amount of material present in this 80-minute ode to the abyss.This makes repeated listens very rewarding, but after it’s been spun enough times, the sheer quantity of melodic guitar work does begin to wear on you. Thus I don’t have too much faith that this will be an extremely replayable record, at least for myself. I wouldn’t be upset with that if Mournful Congregation played a different subgenre of metal, but this is funeral doom. In my opinion, I believe the best of the best funeral doom albums will be those that can be played over and over again while continuing to be an enjoyable experience as long as the listener is in the mood for doom ‘n’ gloom. After listening to the album six times in preparation for this review, I do not think The Incubus of Karma will fit that criterion. Another aspect of The Incubus Of Karma that is slightly concerning to me is that it sounds somewhat overproduced. There has clearly been a lot of care and editing done to the guitar tone to make it the way it is on the album, but in doing so, Mournful Congregation has lost their raw edge in every aspect except for the vocal department. That certainly makes the band more accessible to those unfamiliar with funeral doom, but I can’t help but miss the sheer raw sadness of the first two Mournful Congregation albums. By spending so much time refining their production, I think Mournful Congregation has exchanged a significant portion of their prior self-destructive “heaviness” for a more appealing sense of tragic beauty. This may be incredible for some, but it’s not quite for me.

At the end of the day, personal bias and criticisms aside, I would have to say that Mournful Congregation’s The Incubus of Karma is one of the best albums I have heard all year. It is slow, ponderous, and tragic, all of which help to satiate my need for the most depressing funeral doom possible. Plus it is an extremely strong return from one of the best bands in the subgenre, which makes the experience of listening to The Incubus of Karma all the more enjoyable. I would argue that this is definitely Mournful Congregation’s most accessible release to date, and as such, it would serve as a very good introduction for those unfamiliar with funeral doom metal. It prominently features the depression that’s a cornerstone of the subgenre, while layering it in a sheath of melancholic beauty. As long as you’re willing to dedicate a sufficient 80-minute block of time to listen to this record, you will find it to be an incredibly rewarding and transcendental experience unlike any other album within the realm of modern funeral doom.

Rating: 8/10

1. The Indwelling Ascent
2. The Incubus of Karma
3. Whispering Spiritscapes
4. Scripture of Exaltation and Punishment
5. The Rubaiyat
6. A Picture of the Devouring Gloom Devouring the Spheres of Being

Total Playing Time: 01:19:48

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