Ascension: The Dead of the World

When I saw the German black metal band Ascension at Maryland Deathfest in 2013, they were among the most memorable acts, largely because it was hard to know what to make of them. After being battered with a weekend of booze and an especially pulverizing set from the war metal group Revenge, their performance took on semi-psychedelic qualities. Their identities remain unknown, which is not all that unusual for a black metal group, but their singer was unmistakable, resembling a zombified ’70s John McLaughlin with longer hair and a creepier disposition. Ascension played as if they were not only trying to lift the crowd out of Sunday sloth, but also trying to redeem them in a blackened fashion. That they played under a white tent only added to the black metal revival vibe. Even if they weren’t consciously trying to be weird, it was one of the strangest performances of the fest that year.

Ascension’s actual work isn’t quite that trippy. Their 2010 debut full-length Consolamentum was an interesting hybrid of black metal, noise, and spindly guitar work; for a young group, they showed plenty of ambition. With The Dead of the World, Ascension have cut back on some of the more far-flung aspects of their debut in favor of a more streamlined sound, building on an early 2000s Swedish black metal approach pioneered by Watain and Ofermod. This focus favors them in some ways, but they’re still holding themselves back from making a real impact.

“Deathless Light” was released as a single in October, and it is easily the strongest song on the record. That opening salvo is where they embrace their black metal roots the most, trance-like and utterly destructive all at once. Drums lull and pulsate; guitars twist in spiky knots without becoming needlessly complex. All of this is Ascension taking their name seriously: this is music for a one-way cannon shot to a higher plane. Some of the lead work from Consolamentum also returns on “Light”, and while saying that the rest of the record is undeveloped would be false, this song feels the most thought-out and rightfully executed of them all.

Right before “Light” is “Unlocking Tiamat”, whose overt doominess and mid-paced, chunky intro chords could have been something off a Triptykon record. Interestingly enough, Triptykon guitarist V. Santura assisted in recording and mastering Dead, and with a fuller production, the doomier sections, which have a much greater presence on this album, work. Even with a more unified sound, they don’t sap energy from the album as a whole. “Death’s Golden Temple” also carries a blackened Triptykon vibe, though the vocalist doesn’t attempt to replicate the uncanny vocals of Tom G. Warrior. The slower passages also feel more mournful, as a way of crying for the loss of LSK, a veteran of the French black metal scene who contributed vocals to Consolamentum and took her own life in October 2013.

Dead is a frustrating record, one that finds the band on the cusp of making something truly great. While consistency and better production do work in Ascension’s favor, some of the spontaneity of the first record would have been rendered even more powerfully here. A singular focus won’t help if that focus is not at its most intense; Ascension don’t half-ass it, they’re just at the edge.

from Album Reviews – Pitchfork