In the never-ending contention over the validity of Christian metal, an undeniable victory has been struck for the subgenre, and it comes in the form of the new album by Illinoisan blackened death metal band, A Hill to Die Upon. Entitled Holy Despair, the band’s follow-up to 2011’s Omens is a clear progression of a sound and style that already had the metal community enrapt since its debut in 2009.
The penchant A Hill to Die Upon holds for adeptly blending the occult and spiritual, the mythic and the Biblical, has always been an element keeping the band above the waters of a supersaturated genre. In both musical and lyrical composition, the band has always courted a degree of horror and mysticism precious rare, even in the metal genre, and Holy Despair sees this particular focus honed scalpel-precise.
Look no further than the album’s second track for evidence of this lurid maturation. Titled ‘A Jester Arrayed in Burning Gold,’ the song is black metal dissonance wrapped around a linchpin of chillingly unprecedented speed and melody. The complement of harsh and harmonic vocals over the chorus’ lugubrious guitar is a new step for the band, and its effect on the ear is nothing short of shiver-inducing.
All of Holy Despair unfolds like an eschatological soundtrack, or something like a flourish for the Christ’s harrowing of Hell. Songs like ‘Hæðen,’ ‘Rime (Jerub-Ba’al),’ and ‘Satan Speaks’ (featuring lyrics by C.S. Lewis!) balance between eerie discord and a carnivorous ferocity as virulent as the best of A Hill to Die Upon’s prior songs.
‘Nekyia,’ released as a sneak-peek, is a perfect summary of the album. Touting a hypnotic gloom reminiscent of Dimmu Borgir’s ‘Sorgens Kammer – Del II’ and illustrating salvation by way of Homeric sacrifice in its lyrics, the song envelopes the band’s talent for allegory and craft in word as well as note. Holy Despair thankfully provides these traits in spades.
On an album that is gold from beginning to end, naming a standout track can be difficult. With Holy Despair, every song becomes the favorite when listened to, only to be immediately supplanted by its successor when the track ends. With that said, there is something insidious and infectious about the band’s cover of traditional hymn and O Brother, Where Art Thou? feature ‘O Death.’ For a song that entails the deathbed negotiations between the reaper and the reaped, ultimately serving to demonstrate the futility of the temporal and necessity for the eternal, it is threaded by a necessarily depressing melody and drums that thunder without relent. Of particular note are the vocals, with both ‘O Death’ and ‘Rime (Jerub-Ba’al)’ displaying a new sepulchral rasp the venom of which is both terrifying and jaw-dropping. A Hill to Die Upon has always been a band heavily threaded with the elements of black metal, but never before has that sound come bubbling to the surface as caustically as it does on Holy Despair.
And it is wonderful. Hauntingly, crushingly, Inferno-purgingly wonderful.
Is it the band’s best album? A hard thing to say when all three albums are written and performed as well as they are. Is it the band’s most refined and mature album so far? Definitely yes, and an easy contender for best metal album of 2014.
A Hill to Die Upon can be found and followed on Facebook and Bandcamp. Holy Despair will be released April 22 from Bombworks Records, and may be pre-ordered from the band’s shop on Metal Helm .