Author: Bob Szekely
(Candlelight Records, 2014)
#FOR FANS OF: Black/Death, Bolt Thrower
This band’s name clearly places them toward the earliest positioning in the category of extreme metal: which is either a brilliant marketing move, or serendipitous luck. That having been said, Ancient Ascendant demonstrates some real musical chops: using Pantera-like grooves in the guitar rhythms, they don’t find it necessary to lean on the common technique of using slowly ascending patterns of rapidly double-picked single guitar notes to build tension in the music, nor do they need to rely on the indulgent solos of high-speed neo-classical sweeps along the lines of Yngwie or the finger gymnastics of Petrucci. Rather — where evident— guitar solos and bass runs are simple and melodic, yet soulful. There is a lot of ‘light and shade’ in the songs on this release, as compared to the brief soft break found in Arch Enemy’s “My Apocalypse” around roughly 2:40 into the track, as a point of comparison. I found four of the seven tracks on 'Echoes and Cinder' to be of particular note. The leading track, “Crones to the Flames”, which opens with a standard percussive dark metal a capella vocal growl-shout, caught my attention by its title. More poetic than the hysteric "Burn the Witch", the opening chord is mildly reminiscent of Sekshun 8’s "Black Winged Butterfly". I can’t help but wonder if the title of this track was somehow inspired by the Wiccan trinity of Maiden, Mother, Crone. “Patterns of Bane”, the second track on this release, demonstrates an unusual sense of dynamics for extreme metal: opening with a finger picked diminished chord — as drum accents and bass pedal-like tones shortly join in, followed by power-chord and drum roll accents, which leads us to expect the full-bore heavy part immediately next. But, no — it turns out to be essentially a deceptive cadence, as we are returned to a now-modulated finger picked chord, as a controlled-feedback fade-in leads us into a heavy, groove-oriented rhythm guitar over the top of it, with chord inversions and augmentations reminiscent of George Lynch (Dokken, Lynch Mob). The musicianship evident here far exceeds that provided by seminal bands of the genre such as Venom and Slayer, and partly harkens back to Ozzy-era Black Sabbath, echoing "Don't Start (Too Late)", the instrumental guitar intro to "Symptom of the Universe" from the 'Sabotage' album. Yet it goes a step further — as Tony Iommi would often write and record full song softer instrumentals, such as "Laguna Sunrise" from 'Volume 4' and "Embryo" from 'Master of Reality', or softer works with vocals like "Planet Caravan" from Paranoid, and "Solitude" from 'Master of Reality'. It wasn't until the beginning of the Dio era, where we began to hear these parts becoming more integral to their songs, such as the opening/verse of "Children of the Sea" and the ending of "Heaven and Hell", both from the album 'Heaven and Hell'. In "Patterns of Bane" Ancient Ascendant takes the haunting feel of early Iommi guitar instrumentals, merges it with later post-Ozzy Sabbath guitar interludes, and uses it as a recurring bridge in the song, varying both feel and tempo throughout — making this song essentially a powerhouse of progressive-tech death metal, seamlessly merging the best elements of all in a song that draws its power equally from both the genre elements it utilizes, along with intelligent song construction and superior execution in performance and recording. The third track, “Riders” [of Woe] starts as de rigeur thrash replete with blast beat. In the middle of the bridge/breakdown at about 1:42-1:43 we hear a classic blues rock riff harmonized in fourths ending the part. At approximately 2:56, a soulful, expessive guitar solo comes in (save for the last dissonant note) a refreshing change from the high speed atonal riffery we hear in seminal bands such as Slayer courtesy of Kerry King. In the refrain, the drummer demonstrates his stamina backing up the guitars and vocals with rolling double-kicks — admittedly it's not as overdone here as it is in every song by Dragonforce: but a much more dynamic and effective use of this drum technique is demonstrated by Tommy Aldridge in the opening for Ozzy Osbourne's "Over the Mountain". Double-bass should be used sparingly for accent and dramatic effect. Otherwise, it just becomes background thumpa-thud machine-gun droning, detracting from the song. Lastly, “Embers”, is in this reviewer’s opinion easily the best song found here. It is a beautifully dark instrumental, powerfully evocative of loneliness and struggle. Against a background of gentle sounds like that of a dying fire burning inside a cave, the song begins with a finger-picked nylon-stringed acoustic, as a strumming steel-string shortly joins in. Shortly thereafter also do tambourine and bass guitar. The mix builds as a piano/bass break leads into classical acoustic guitar resounding and haunting with steely ringing strums as accompaniment. Soft mallet percussion joins in slowly like bongos. Diminished chord arpeggios — a blend of soft melodies and bright chording — swell into synth strings and vocals, as drums join in — softly but insistently building up to a swift gallop which alludes to the mysteries of the Far East. A crescendo builds into a profound swirl of sound, as we return to the lonely guitars still singing their song of woe, echoing the earlier sadness of the pianoforte's melody. Picture yourself staring into the softly crackling fire, the only light and heat available. You reflect on your past, present and future — perhaps recklessly immersing yourself fully in all three facets of this never-ending now. You lose your mind and soul to the timelessness of the flame — until it dies and you are finally released back to an uncertain and foreboding present. Even though I only truly connected with about half the songs here, those songs are powerful examples of the craft, power and emotion these musicians are capable of. 'Echoes and Cinder' is highly recommended for newcomers to extreme metal, as well as for current fans of progressive metal, who may tend to like their music just a little bit darker than standard prog-metal fare.