Since 2003, Alexander von Meilenwald, the former drummer for Nagelfar, has been releasing sprawling black metal epics under the name The Ruins of Beverast. His music starts with a basic black metal template and incorporates doom metal and death metal, all steeped in thick gothic atmosphere. Meilenwald's albums are cinematic in scope and are best appreciated as singular experiences rather than broken up in to individual tracks. Meilenwald's newest offering under the Ruins of Beverast name is Blood Vaults: The Blazing Gospel of Heinrich Kramer. Fans of Meilenwald's previous work under the Beverast moniker will still like this new album, but it's a departure from the type of music he's created in the past.
Those who've followed the Ruins of Beverast from the first album know that the project has slowly been evolving from the fairly raw black metal of Unlock the Shrine to the much more doom influenced Foulest Semen of a Sheltered Elite. Blood Vaults is another step in that direction, and, at this point, it's debatable whether or not this is even black metal anymore. The sub-genre's putrid influence can certainly be felt throughout the album, but full on black metal songs are nigh absent here. The brief second-to-last-track, "Ordeal", is the only song on the entire 80 minute album that presents the listener with non-stop blast beats and a tempo that rises above a crawl for a sustained amount of time. The constant slow lurch of the music gets monotonous sometimes, and it's easy to lose track of what song you're listening to, but Meilenwald is such a skilled composer that his music will quickly recapture your attention.
As with previous Ruins of Beverast efforts, the music here is extremely dense. "Daemon", the second track and first true song on the album, starts off with phased whispering and chanting that sounds like it's echoing off the walls of some abandoned cathedral. But the first snarling guitar chords of the album rip through the ether before the listener has a chance to get bored. From there the song alternates between blackened doom metal and more of the chanting. All the while, a church organ periodically fades in and out of the mix to add an appropriately menacing gothic feel to the song. The tone "Daemon" sets is appropriate considering Blood Vaults mines it's lyrical themes from the Malleus Maleficarum – a book dealing with the prosecution of witches. The book was authored by Heinrich Kramer, a German clergyman and inquisitor whose name has obviously been appropriated as part of this album's title.
Aside from the stronger doom influence on Blood Vaults, another aspect that differentiates this album from previous Ruins of Beverast albums is the improved production quality. All of the previous three Beverast albums have had a muddy sound that fits the music well, but masks a lot of the nuance in Meilenwald's compositions. Poor production quality has always been a trait of black metal – it's almost fetishized by some artists – but it's nice to be able to listen to a Beverast album and actually hear the different layers present in the songs, too. The heavier, doom-influenced tracks on Blood Vaults, "Spires, The Wailing City" and "Malefica" for example, would have been robbed of much of their power if the grinding guitar tones and thick organ and bass parts were buried in sludgy production or stripped out in favor of buzzing, trebly guitars.
It's tempting to proclaim Blood Vaults the best Ruins of Beverast album; it's certainly a strong contender. But "The Best" probably still belongs to Rain Upon the Impure. Blood Vaults is certainly the best produced and most adventurous Ruins of Beverast album, but it's relentlessly slogging tempo really drives the fact that the album is as long as a feature film home. There's also something to be said for the merits of terrible production. Yeah, this album is 100 times clearer than any of Meilenwald's previous material, but that can be a double edged sword.
There are a few spoken word segments on Blood Vaults, the opening track "Apologia" is the longest , where Meilenwald delivers his lines in the pitch-shifted growl he sings in for most of the album. It sounds fine when it's accompanied by a grimy wall of music, but isolated, it sounds pretty ridiculous. Better production tends to illuminate the blemishes of music in much the same way high definition televisions make older computer effects look worse than if they were viewed on a tube television.
Criticisms aside, Blood Vaults: The Blazing Gospel of Heinrich Kramer is still a great colection of songs. It's so rare these days to run across an album that keeps your attention from start to finish. It's even more stunning when the album is 80 minutes long. Blood Vaults isn't a piece of music that's easily dissected and ingested in small chunks, but if you're in the mood for something HEAVY that you can get lost in for an hour and a half, this is the album for you. Blood Vaults is out now on Ván Records in a number of cool CD and LP options. Decibel Magazine is also streaming the album in full right now if you want to give it a once over before you purchase it.