Country: London, England
Released: August 25th, 2017
Label: Peaceville Records
Jason Mendonça – Vocals, Guitars
Paul Scanlan – Guitars
Nathanael Underwood – Bass
Samuel Loynes – Keys
David Gray – Drums
Behind the Boards:
Neil Kernon – Mixing
Alan Douches – Mastering
Anyone who’s listened to an episode or two of our Podcast proper has probably clearly heard of my undying affection for British prog-death unit Akercocke, so I’ll skip my typical gushing for the facts. 10 years out from last album Antichrist and 5 years after officially going on hiatus, Akercocke has reconvened, the core of Jason Mendonça and David Gray joined by faces both new and familiar, for a new album after a decade of studio silence. Of course some members have kept busy in the meantime, namely David Gray who continues to play with Akercocke alumni in Voices (if you love extreme prog at all, do yourself a favor and check out their London album posthaste) and Antichrist Imperium. But Akercocke proper has been a felt absence, so the pressure was on when Renaissance was announced. Is Akercocke truly back, or is this another case of a band coming back without the magic it once carried?
My answer to that question will shock nobody who knows me: yes, the boys are definitely back, and in fine form. But things have changed in very apparent and intriguing ways. As teased in interviews beforehand, Renaissance in Extremis stands in contrast to former works by way of a distinct kind of positivity flowing through it. Sure, Akercocke was never as nihilistic and spiteful as, say, fellow Brits Anaal Nathrakh or Dragged into Sunlight, but there was always a defined evil atmosphere that is conspicuously reduced this time. The music still feels haunting at times, but it’s clear that this album was written in a different mindset. Scanning the lyrics, the ol’ Sex n’ Satan bent has also been jettisoned in favor of quieter self-reliant and self-improvement. The lyrics feel empowering in an interesting “I have my problems, but I have the strength to overcome them” kind of way. There are lot of moments across this album that are positively uplifting in a way very few death metal albums ever have been, and likely ever will be.
Therein lies another major shift. In the special edition of the album (of course I got it), one of the members comments on this album being more prog with death bits than death with prog bits. This shift is pretty noticeable, and quite welcome to my ears. The death is still there for sure, and as excellent as it always was, but the other elements at play are far more pronounced. I can’t help but think of this as the minute-by-minute thrashiest album they’ve yet produced, and the more goth/post-punk tinges that have always colored the songwriting have been expanded, filling my Sisters of Mercy and Killing Joke-loving heart with unspeakable joy.
The members themselves have never sounded better to me. Jason Mendonça’s growls are just as bestial as ever, but his more punkish shouting is even punchier than before. Even better, his clean range (though sometimes considered melodramatic by detractors) has expanded, and many of his clean breaks (which come more often than ever on this one) are just plain excellent and wonderfully emotional. His playing is stellar as always, matched by returning guitarist Paul Scanlan. Scanlan’s return apparently facilitated much of the prog orientation (the last guitarist, Matt Wilcock, was first known for his playing in The Berzerker, and that alone should assure that softening the sound was no option during his run). Both guitarists bring the riffs in abundance, but both are equally capable of subtlety and beautiful clean sections. New member Nathanael Underwood weaves excellent bass lines throughout, aided by a beautifully clear mix that buries none of his playing (more on that soon!). Samuel Loynes settles mostly on atmosphere and simple backdrops on the keys, but really, a virtuoso performance would most likely have only hurt the album, and I respect his tasteful restraint more than I would respect any shred-happy presence on the keys. And David Gray, well, pretty much continues to be one of my favorite drummers in any genre, as at home playing soft, jazzy beats as he is blasting, and slacking off precisely nowhere between.
The mix on this album rivals even Words that Go Unspoken in clarity, which may not suit some. But for an album that, as stated, leans even more prog than death this time, it’s very welcome. No single instrument is unduly favored, and everything is totally audible with plenty of breathing room between instruments. The mix was handled by Neil Kernon. Kernon has handled a couple Akercocke albums before (Choronzon and Words…), and his other credits could be mildly referred to as completely bananas. This guy handled legendary Hall & Oates albums, Judas Priest’s Unleashed in the East, solo work from Yes’ Jon Anderson, and, on the other end, albums by Macabre, Cannibal Corpse, and Nile. Look his credits up, IT’S INSANE. This mix, honestly, more than lives up to anything he’s ever done. Throw in legendary metal producer Alan Douches for mastering, and there’s no way this could have possibly been less than stellar, but it still exceeds expectation.
All in all, Renaissance in Extremis is a complete triumph in every conceivable way, while also having an identity distinct from anything else, be it Akercocke’s impeccable discography or elsewhere. Songs like Disappear, Unbound by Sin, or Inner Sanctum will sit pretty beside the best in Akercocke’s line-up. Sometimes a comeback album can succeed when the best that can be said is “well, there’s nothing bad on it.” It’ll take time to decide, but I almost feel like Renaissance in Extremis makes a solid case for being their BEST album yet, and I don’t float that out there lightly when Words… remains one of my favorite albums in any genre with other releases floating within sight of it. Time will tell if it becomes an undying favorite on the same level, but at this moment, I can say with not even a shred of doubt that Renaissance in Extremis is a thoroughly special, excellent album. Give it a spin, feel the empowerment.
This is the first Akercocke album to not be recorded at Goat of Mendes Studios
The band wanted Sabina Classen from Holy Moses to perform lead vocals on track 1, but she couldn’t be reached.
For more info on Akercocke, Voices, The Antichrist Imperium, and more check out episode 10 of the podcast.