Greetings and salutations, friends. It is I, your esteemed Professor, and I return to you to examine one of the year’s most intriguing new releases, Thy Catafalque’s masterful Sgùrr. Many of you may have already read my retrospective on Thy Catafalque, which discusses the importance of the band’s later works; for those of you who haven’t, go ahead; I’ll wait.
And welcome back. Now, the impetus for writing such a retrospective was in no small part due to the impending release of this album, which at that time I had only heard a portion small enough to whet my appetite. Sometime thereafter, I was privileged enough to get to hear it, and so I began to prepare the groundwork for the very article you are presently reading. For those of you who have tried it, reviewing an album is not always easy, but it’s immeasurably easier when it’s an artist or album that you are passionate about, and as you may have gleaned from my previous article, there are few artists I that inspire me like Thy Catafalque.
As with Rengeteg, the predecessor to Sgùrr, Thy Catafalque is the solo work of Tamás Kátai along with a few musical guests. Of note, prior collaborators Attila Bakos and Ágnes Tóth do not appear on Sgùrr, as the album features almost no clean vocals; however, the album does feature guest vocals and double bass from Kátai’s former Gire bandmates Zoltán Kónya and Balázs Hermann, respectively, as well as the violin talents of Dimitris Papageorgiou. That there are no clean vocals (excluding the spoken word intro, narrated by Viktória Varga, and the operatic outro, sung by Ágnes Sipos - more on this in a moment) is noteworthy, as their absence serves to further differentiate Sgùrr from the albums that precede it.
Evolution between albums is one of Thy Catafalque’s defining characteristics, a consistent thread throughout the band’s history that continues with Sgùrr. As mentioned, there are no clean vocals, a shift from the last several albums, but it is far from the only difference. The album itself is bookended by a pair of brief tracks, both titled "Zúgó", and help to provide an odd sort of symmetry to the album’s structure that is notable when looking at the tracklist and song times. The album’s main concept involves the relationship between mountains and water, inspired by the Scottish highlands of Kátai’s current home and the Hungarian lowlands of his former, and the album’s structure forms a sort of valley (consisting of three short tracks, some of the album’s fastest and heaviest) between two massive mountain peaks (in the form of two 15-minute-plus epics).
Kátai is certainly no stranger to experimenting with album structure, and so it comes as no surprise that he continues to play with the listener’s expectations on Sgùrr. After the intro, a point when most bands would blast the listener with one of their heaviest tracks, Kátai instead chooses to lead with "Alföldi kozmosz", the initial track premiered from Sgùrr and one that features an intriguing mix of acoustic guitar, violin, and Kátai’s signature drum programming. It’s a curveball straight out of the gate, and yet the track is effective in getting the listener involved thanks to its upbeat, folky stomp. "Alföldi kozmosz" also serves as a notice to the listener that, yes, this is a Thy Catafalque album and bears the recognizable hallmarks of a Thy Catafalque album, but it’s also going to be something that takes those elements and hammers them into something different.
The track that follows, "Oldódó formák a halál titokzatos birodalmában", is perhaps the clearest example of how the album uses the familiar Thy Catafalque sound to create something new. It’s one of the album’s two mountain peaks, and as such is a journey unto itself, driven by a propulsive riff/synth melody combination and some of the most creative drum programming yet heard on a Thy Catafalque album. (I understand that programmed drums can be a detriment to a lot of artists, but one of Kátai’s most consistently interesting elements is the drum sound and the beats and rhythms he creates, and Sgùrr is no exception.) The song features the first hint of the speed and heaviness that dominates a good portion of Sgùrr, but it also demonstrates Kátai’s love of varying song structures with an extended breather in its midst. More than anything, this is the song that defines the album and what it does.
This leads to the valley of the album’s midpoint, featuring the slow, melodic descent into the foothills on "A hajnal kék kapuja", followed by the turbulent river of "Élő lény" and the violent rapids of "Jura", perhaps the two heaviest songs on the album. Both tracks deliver the sort of blackened fury that characterized Thy Catafalque’s early work, but both tracks are tempered by Kátai’s incomparable sense of melody. From here, we ascend back into the peaks with "Eilde Sgùrr Mòr", a track named for a Scottish mountain, and the song builds from a similarly furious beginning to a more mid-paced ascent, some brief horn-sounding synths that bring Sear Bliss’ best work to mind, and then the song grinds almost entirely to a halt, setting the stage for a slow descent to the other side. The album concludes with the moody, almost dirgelike "Keringő" and the operatic a capella of the second "Zúgó".
Perhaps more than any previous Thy Catafalque album, Sgùrr feels like a journey, a hike through the realm of nature yet unspoiled by the infringements of civilization. It is at once familiar to fans of Thy Catafalque’s previous work and something new, a continuation of an established style and an evolution of that style all at once, something that few artists ever manage to successfully do. (Indeed, I racked my brain trying to think of a good comparison, and the best I could come up with is Trent Reznor’s ever-changing style with Nine Inch Nails.) All the trademarks of Kátai’s work are present, from the thunderous guitar riffs and distinctive drum sound to the incomparable synth melodies, but the way that they are presented and deployed serves to create an album that both fits comfortably into the Thy Catafalque discography and yet stands out as its own unique work.
I suppose what I’m trying to say, friends, is that Sgùrr is one of the most interesting, creative, brilliant albums of the year. It is a collection of excellent songs, yes, but it is meant to be consumed as a whole, listened to in a single sitting with no distractions. This is music being made for the sake of music with an utter disregard for styles and trends, art that is wholly without compromise being created simply because its creator was inspired. This is what music should be.
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