Imperial Triumphant reimagined avant-garde black/death metal with its 2018 album Vile Luxury. The trio branched off from the Portal and Deathspell Omega schools of thought, embodying the eclectic clamor of New York City with noisy jazz and 20th century classical music. Fans of Vile Luxury will find a lot to appreciate in Alphaville. Even so, the band’s unwavering commitment to progressive songwriting gives the band's latest album a life of its own. Alphaville heralds the return of the Roaring ‘20s with a black metal jazz fusion labyrinth.
Alphaville contextualizes itself with reinterpretations of Voivod’s “Experiment” and “Happy Home” by The Residents. These covers show how Imperial Triumphant obliterates convention like a weaponized metro. The opening riff of “Experiment” remains authentic to late-80s prog-thrash, but the style is quickly transformed by ultra-guttural gurgles, chaotic rhythm breaks and the band's innate dissonance. “Happy Home,” an art-punk deep cut, was strange enough in the first place, but hearing Imperial Triumphant weave blast beats and crazed screams into the song's synthetic loops and eerie falsetto singing is bafflingly scary. These closing bonuses epitomize the “not-limited writing process” drummer Kenny Grohowski referenced in Metal Injection's exclusive in-studio documentary. These guys do what they want, and it pays off.
Diving into this album finds Imperial Triumphant as uncompromising as ever. From its opening hair-raising crescendo to its concluding organ drone, “Rotted Futures” displays the band’s mastery of intentional atonality. This is further emphasized by the various choir arrangements that permeate this album. Grohowski kicks Zachary Ilya Ezrin’s complex guitar chords around with a finessed, misshapen groove worthy of the jazz elite and the dummer's own past work in Secret Chiefs 3. Likewise, bassist Steve Blanco jumps from growling low end to spontaneous harmonies in an instant. Look no further than “Excelsior” for the best display of Blanco’s chops. His spiralling scales, Ezrin’s alien voicings and Grohowski’s evolving rhythmic tapestry essentially add up to straight jazz fusion—even when the song explodes into a blackened assault, or the industrial textures of its final moments.
With no click track to lock them in place, Imperial Triumphant's approach is totally off the grid. The band juxtaposes improvised jamming and detailed orchestration, imbuing Alphaville with bizarre, yet natural twists. Only this meeting of minds could place a polyrhythmic Taiko drum jam alongside Meshuggah's own Tomas Haake into the middle of “City Swine,” and transition seamlessly into a cavalcade of clattering piano chords and sludgy chugs. Co-producers Trey Spruance (Mr. Bungle) and Colin Marston (Behold… The Arctopus and Krallice) know their way around the avant-garde, adding more nuance and tasteful layerings to Imperial Triumphant’s outlandish jazz metal.
Imperial Triumphant rides the fence between black metal and jazz, but “Transmission to Mercury” blurs the line completely. From a tritonic piano-and-trombone nod to legendary jazz cats like Duke Ellington and Bill Evans comes a tidal wave of shrill tremolo picking, acrobatic bass lines and unrelenting percussion. Even more impressive, J Walter Hawkes brings the trombone back for a bombastic solo as the hellish riffs and crazed screams boil over. Ironically, the most challenging aspect of Alphaville becomes the harsh vocals, not the expanded instrumentation. Ezrin and Blanco’s monstrous bellows and witchy shrieks plunge experimental intrigue into a dystopian nightmare, an essential ingredient to the world Imperial Triumphant builds with Alphaville.
Imperial Triumphant feeds the culture and history of New York City through a filter of sci-fi noir, distorting old-world charm with unforgiving extremity. Take “Atomic Age,” which starts with a static-encased barbershop quartet and ends in lurching rhythms, anti-melody and bestial snarls. It’s like hearing the facade of gentry presented by the elite as they carelessly usher in an apocalyptic mechanism: “Immaculate destruction/ Extinction perfected/ All will fade.” Underneath this Frankenstein's monster of dark jazz and demented metal lie critical narratives centered on classism, fascism and industrialization—much like the '60s film from which the album gets its name. The midsection's turn to more traditional, melodic black metal is particularly cathartic, considering the cerebral Armageddons that precede and follow it.
Surprisingly, Alphaville offers more footholds in its tumult than the amorphous suffocation of its predecessor. Amid its maddening chord progressions and inexplicable symphonic samples, “Alphaville” finds the trio locking into its most accessible riffage to date. The same could be said about the barrel-chested chugs and skronky chords of “The Greater Good.” Both tracks still revel in cacophony, but their backbone of head-banging energy is undeniable. More often than not, Alphaville comes off like the black/death metal equivalent of Miles Davis’ electric era, with its beauty shining through where it counts most.
After finding itself with Vile Luxury, Imperial Triumphant navigates a musical storm of its own design and even spotlights some of its inspirations. Alphaville is definitely more palatable than its predecessor, but only because certain sections are easier to head-bang or zone out to. This album presents rarified, uninhibited, experimental metal in its most confrontational form. Nonetheless, it’s hard to resist multiple listens.