December 15, 2013

Akercocke - Words That Go Unspoken, Deeds That Go Undone

Written by Jordan Campbell.

I first stumbled upon Akercocke in the pages of Brave Words and Bloody Knuckles back in 2002, right after the release of their sophomore album, The Goat of Mendes. And the thing that struck me immediately—like it did with everyone—was their buttoned-down, suited-up gimmick. That was Akercocke’s thing: They wore suits. Now, bear in mind: Back in ’02, they didn't appear as dapper as they did during the Words That Go Unspoken, Deeds That Go Undone promo cycle. They looked like they just finished arguing with Mr. White and Nice Guy Eddie about the ethics of tipping.

It was an awkward juxtaposition, these devilish upstarts and their stiff attire. Thusly, the gist of the feature was basically, “Akercocke wear suits!”, and when confronted with the question as to why a rickety, raw-ass, blackened death metal band wanted to present themselves as reluctant prom dates, Jason Mendonça’s reply of “we always dress like this…” was far from convincing. (Obviously, I’m paraphrasing here; pulling exact quotes from a magazine article I read in my aunt’s kitchen twelve years ago is an inexact science.)

The point is this: Akercocke captured my attention with that gimmick. And that gimmick was effective in a way that The Goat of Mendes probably wouldn’t have been, at least to my nineteen-year-old mind. Let’s be honest. Akercocke’s early work left something to be desired. Lots, in fact. Rape of The Bastard Nazarene and The Goat of Mendes were stultifying experiments with fair-to-horseshit production values. If not for the suits, Akercocke wouldn’t have been regarded as intriguing prospects, but mere also-rans. But with their suave Satanism—steeped in indulgence and lust rather than crude blasphemy—they managed to pique heavy metal’s collective interest.

David Gray, Jason Mendonça, Matt Wilcock, Peter Benjamin.

(In that way, they’re something of a modern relic. While the Internet age has brought us the wonders of Haulix, Soundcloud, and Bandcamp, the quick-click disposability of these pseudo-formats aren’t exactly conducive to metallic farm systems. No longer can a band slowly climb the ranks; you best have your shit together straightaway, son.)

By the time Choronzon came around in 2003, they weren’t shopping off-the-rack anymore. The band had tailored their sound into something special. Earache threw some weight behind ‘em and produced a ridiculous video for “Leviathan.” Suddenly, they were primed for primetime, finally growing into their “Skin For Dancing In” by adding some progressive flair to their demented take on death metal. And then, they did what all brilliant bands on the cusp of semi-stardom should do:

They got real fuckin’ weird with it.

2005’s Words That Go Unspoken, Deeds That Go Undone could've been huge. But it was too damn smart for its own good. Akercocke weren’t content to be merely be Opeth’s absinthe n’ bitches counterpoint. They wanted to tug at the seams of death metal’s very essence, stretch the threads across a blackened skeleton, and pulverize the entire project in an act of commercial suicide.

It’s unclear if artists realize they’re doing this at the time. For instance, Nicolas Winding Refn reached the cusp of mainstream success with Drive, and then turned around and made a film about horrible people committing misguided acts of senseless violence against each other…in Thailand…with no subtitles. Whether the demented fuck-you of Only God Forgives was subconscious or overt is up for debate. Words is similarly perplexing. The main difference: It’s actually good. Not only is it Akercocke’s best album, its one of the genre’s finest—and criminally overlooked—artistic statements.

The beauty of Words’ brutality is that for all its progressive quirk, it never forgets that Job One is punishment. The one-two opening combo of “Verdelet” and “Seduced” stands among the heaviest, most exhausting exhibitions in death metal history. Peter Theobalds’ bass heaves and pops with psychotic fervor, providing a stout rail for the corrosive guitar tones to scrape across. “Verdelet” runs a gamut of vocal styles before a throat-destroying black metal shriek puts a bloody little bow on the thing; it’s explores nearly every extreme subgenre within a mere four minutes, making It the kind of track a person can get stuck on for weeks, if not months. (True story: For ages, I’d completely lose my shit to “Verdelet”, forcing me to shelve the rest of the album immediately afterward due to physical fatigue.) “Seduced” is packed with even more hairpin turns and harrowing straightaways. It climaxes with a regal turn of brutalism at the three minute mark; it’s a comeback riff for the ages, one that loses nary a shred of its potency once the element of surprise dissipates.

A slightly less suave Akercocke from 2010. Photo by Jo T.

The midsection of the album is where the pugilism gives way to prog. The ten-minute “Shelter From The Sand” is something of a primer, spiraling itself towards the 70s before setting the stage for a Nile-ish dance with “Eyes of Dawn”. That track’s simple-minded bludgeon is something of a reversed respite before “Words That Go Unspoken 1 & 2”, largely clean-toned excursions into bastardized balladry and Middle Eastern seduction.

But the band never gets too far ahead of themselves; they know when to pull their reins and revert to their strengths. (“Seraphs and Silence” and “The Penance” are robust, punch-perfect manipulations of their core ethos.) Words showcases a band at the absolute peak of their abilities. Relentless. Ravenous. Reflective.

It was a blinding flash, blanketed by relative obscurity. Unfortunately, the few ‘heads that grew enamored with Words weren’t allowed to watch a maturing Akercocke flourish before their eyes. 2007’s Antichrist wasn’t much of a sequel. It was willfully obtuse, largely impenetrable, and rumored to be a rushjob to fulfill their contract with Earache. (A band hastily dashing for Digby’s exits? Imagine that.) After that, the band attempted to go the DIY route, to minimal fanfare. They quietly retired shortly thereafter. Drummer David Gray gathered some cohorts for this year’s underrated (read: underpromoted) Voices debut, but after seven years, Words’ momentum has officially stalled.

No matter. It’ll stand the test of time, a monument to heavy metal ingenuity (and Satanic stridence) in the face of an increasingly homogenized subculture. It was a long climb, but for a brief moment in 2005, Akercocke harnessed their potential. They unleashed it with unrivalled fervor. They made their ultimate statement.

Everyone has their moment. Few bands have had finer than this.

[Go to the post to view the Bandcamp player]

  1. The best writeup that this album deservedly needs.

  2. Great write up. Regarding the suits, I read in another interview somewhere that they started dressing in suits because they took their music seriously, and they wanted their audience to do the same. Granted, I don't think anybody who's wistful for the "good old days" of Frank Sinatra and Lawrence Welk would be swayed, but hey...

    1. Jo's photo shows that were also capable of not taking themselves too seriously :)

  3. I love the passion in this post! Hadn’t listened to this in a few years. Still amazing!