The question isn’t whether Altars of Grief’s sophomore record is good; it's a question of how good it is. Iris is a nigh-peerless construct of somber beauty and one of the greatest doom metal albums in years. That much is readily apparent after just an initial listen. Where should we begin? Should we discuss how Iris’ magnificent fusion of funeral doom and black metal perfectly complement one another while sounding entirely unlike anything else currently on the scene? Perhaps we could touch on the record’s individual achievements, such as the soaring, awe-inspiring, melodic vocals in “Desolation?" Maybe the title track’s crushingly powerful latter half? There are also a dozen or so other bits that could be individual career-defining moments for almost any other band.
This all sounds a bit hyperbolic, but Iris is genuinely that good. Saskatchewan's Altars of Grief’s latest record runs for 54 minutes and nearly every second is a major win. The record is stuffed to the gills with riffs that range from quiet and contemplative to vicious and raw; vocals that shift from crooning and melodic to gut-wrenchingly violent and engrossing. Almost every moment of each song and musical element—from the varied, wailing vocals to the pristine instrumentation and all-encompassing atmosphere—is a near flawless success. Iris might cover some dark subject matter, but it does so with striking grace.
Of course, this is still an extreme metal record, and Iris certainly doesn’t skimp on aggression or bombast. The grandiose, doom-laden riffs on “Child of Light” and especially “Voices of Winter” boast a towering, hauntingly symphonic presence that almost singlehandedly encapsulate the weighty gravitas of funeral doom, despite the record’s nimble pace rarely matching the tempo of most the genre’s records.
Iris becomes absolutely menacing when it leans into its harsher, extreme metal influences. The title track's first half moves at a fair pace, full of suitably assertive screeches and growls, but melodic riffing and drum patterns keep things fairly measured. Suddenly, it breaks down into an enraged, anguished inferno. The song’s final three minutes are an earth-shattering maelstrom of monstrous doom riffs and grisly howls that belie the stunning elegance of the music surrounding its immense outro.
While these are some of Altars of Grief’s clearest successes, they only barely scratch the surface of the band’s staggering accomplishments here. It’s always risky to assign a new record a rating in the upper echelons of the review scale. Will the record stand the test of time? Does it really compare favorably, or at least equally, to the classics of the genre in question? Is this just a gut reaction? I don’t know. However, I do know that I’ve already listened to Iris dozens of times, and I’m finding new nuances to love on each listen. I love it and I want more.
So just how good is Iris? This is going to be a busy year for metal music, but it’s safe to wager that Altars of Grief’s latest deserves to be near the top of any sensible album of the year list. This is a near-classic landmark release for both doom metal and the metal scene at large and an absolute, unconditional must-listen. It truly does not get much better than this.
Tyler Hersko is becoming intangible on Twitter.