Ill Omen – The Grande Usurper Review

Band: Ill Omen
Album: The Grande Usurper
Label: Iron Bonehead
Genre: Black Metal
Country: Australia
Release Date: August 10, 2018

You probably haven’t heard of Ill Omen, but there’s a fair chance you’ve heard of the man behind it. Mitchell Keepin (performing here under the alias “IV”) is a valued member of the Australian black metal scene, playing in bands such as Nazxul, Woods of Desolation, Pestilential Shadows and many more, but is probably most known for Austere and their 2009’s depressive black metal masterpiece “To Lay Like Old Ashes” (sadly they disbanded in 2010). Despite playing and composing almost exclusively black metal, it’s apparent across his various projects that Keepin is a musician with that special creative itch, always looking to go to new sonic spaces. The solo project of Ill Omen is one of the vessels for this journey.

This musical wanderlust is very well illustrated in the differences between Ill Omen’s latest album, the soon to be released “The Grande Usurper”, and the one before it, 2016’s “Æ.Thy.Rift”. His previous piece was an utterly sombre endeavour, dreary ambient pieces slowly descending into despairing funeral doom, only occasionally using blast beats (but never too explosive) to justify the black metal label. It was entirely hopeless music, fit for solitary contemplation. “The Grande Usurper” has none of that. Even though their respective musical approaches certainly seem thematically related, they are completely different. While “Æ.Thy.Rift” is downtrodden doom, “The Grande Usurper” is ripping black metal. The former is lamenting the ruins of a dead world, the latter is the still ongoing onslaught that killed it.

However, this new approach does not at all betray the atmospheric foundations of the project. The production lends itself powerfully to this. One thing that is immediately apparent to the listener is the hefty focus on the low-end, murky bass constantly pulsating, engulfing the riffs and blast beats to create an overwhelming haze. It disorients the listener in a good way. Left at the mercy of this density, IV’s vision of horror is felt organically.

The guitars employ the classic black metal method nurtured since its early days, the simple repetitive tremolo riff whose hypnotic capacities can be the envy of all other music genres. To complete the grotesque picture, IV voices himself like a choir of undead doomsayers, using a wide spectre of extreme metal vocal techniques. From classic black metal screeches, grating wailings not unlike those of Atilla Csihar, to deep death growls. Also needs be mentioned the attention to detail coming with the dash of death metal influence. It’s heard in the occasional dissonant and chaotic guitar solo, the pummelling riff, hard-hitting tempo. It actually nicely complements the general atmospheric approach. The pain is not just evoked. It is felt.

“The Grande Usurper’s” general concept and sound are entirely convincing. However, we must mention the few things that work to the album’s detriment. There’s another thing that immediately raises the brow of the listener – the album is really short! It’s 23-minute runtime is more fitting for an EP. The brevity of a record is not a bad thing in itself (and certainly not here), rather it depends on the context. The style of metal played on the album is especially sensitive to these considerations. Long runtimes can fit funeral doom or black metal very well, creating desolate, immersive landscapes. However, they can also easily bore the listener to death, and the line between deeply entrancing and miserably dull seems to be very thin. “The Grande Usurper” makes the right call in choosing to go for the short (maybe too short) form, as it seems to contain some of those elements that could make a long-form record unbearable. For instance, it is sometimes hard to tell its four songs apart. They’re all built on the same murk-pummel-riff-repetition idea, the variations hard to spot. This is not entirely the fault of the songwriting, but also the dense production which often obscures details.

But alas, these are the risks that composers face when writing music, the ones mentioned being particularly pertinent in this style of black metal/funeral doom. IV in my opinion made the right call with keeping the album short, avoiding the pitfall of stretching himself too thin. There is certainly untapped potential here, but nevertheless what we do have is a very enjoyable record in its own right. Fans of dense and obscure soundscapes in metal should definitely give this one a spin.

Rating: 7/10

1. The Ruinous Drear
2. Sentenced Suffering
3. An Eld Living Darkness
4. A Thousand Yawning Graves

Total Playing Time: 23:40

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