Since Halloween is only a month away, let's kick this review off with a trick-or-treating metaphor. The fact that it's for a raw black metal album helps. We all remember the best houses to visit back in the day, the ones that had entire Snickers bars, or full-size packets of Starburst. None of this "fun-size" crap. Ok, so imagine there was a house that always had your favorite candy, and then one year they just handed you the entire basket with everything you could want. That's basically what this Till album is like for me.
The last five for six years have seen a wide proliferation of bands dedicated to raw black metal. By that I mean a dedication to the second-wave black metal sound that emerged out of Norway, Sweden, France, Switzerland, Greece and elsewhere in the early-1990s. This devotion also extends to the self-conscious use of crude production that recalls the aesthetic of A Blaze in the Northern Sky, demo-era Emperor, Worship Him, Under the Sign of Hell, and so on and so on.
The tropes are recognizable but often adorned with garlands of death rock or other gothic styles that open up the range of available riff styles, synths and chord progressions not typical to the older classics. This makes many of the best bands reminiscent of the second wave without being an ersatz copy of it. Oh, and they tend to REALLY, REALLY like vampires. And castles. And vampires living in castles.
But Oklahoma's Till takes a different approach, drawing inspiration from early American history to craft highly emotional and dramatic compositions. And while naysayers of raw black metal will disagree, Monument to Man's Frailty is a towering triumph. Stylistically, its clear antecedents are the production style of Gehenna (especially First Spell and Seen Through the Veil of Darkness), the riffing style of Les Légions Noires bands and Arising Realm-era Ragnarok, acoustic touches of Bergtatt-era Ulver, and synths from across the spectrum of black metal and goth music. There's definitely a bit of Summoning here, but one can also hear echoes of Astarte's lesser-known masterpiece, Doomed Dark Years.
The band's mastermind, Roanoke, and his co-conspirators have three flagships guiding their musical fleet: excellent guitar riffs delivered via the ideal tone for this style, catchy and gripping synth-work that stays with you long after listening, and absolutely savage screaming vocals. The guitars are particularly strong on songs like "By Bayonet and Saber" and "Withering Branches of Bygone Tales," whereas the best synth lines show up on songs like "The Wild's Dark Call" and "The Mountains Weep Not For Me." The vocals kill it throughout the entire album.
Like I said earlier, you can clearly hear the band's influences on this album, without groaning at any attempts to sneak a ripoff past attentive listeners. For example, "I Gaze Upon My Grave" recalls Gehenna's "Unearthly Loose Palace" but stands as an engaging work of its own. In an old, well-established style like black metal (and metal just in general), this really is the ideal path.
And the band knows where to mix up the tempo and mood to keep the listener from getting bored. It also helps that Roanoke knows how to grab the listener by effectively transmitting feelings of longing, loss, and wonder through the music. There were signs of this on the band's earlier work, but it's on this album that they've been able to translate this mastery into something truly great.
I decline to give the album a perfect score only because some minor issues. Even though the band appears to have a live drummer (Palisade), the drum sound somehow still resembles a machine or VST plugin. This is especially evident with the tom rolls, like at the beginning of "Will to Decay." Maybe a slight tweak in the settings would fix this. Also, a couple songs end awkwardly and abruptly in a way that takes you out of the experience.
Otherwise, this an excellent addition to a growing Renaissance of quality black metal, placing Till alongside luminaries like Hulder, Saidan, Spectral Wound, Nocturnal Departure, Ringarë, and many others. So go on, gorge yourself on the ear candy on display here. Unlike your Halloween binges back in middle school, you won't regret it the next day.