A couple of years ago, as I was heading into the city for work, the bus I was on started to turn into the terminal when the driver slammed on the brakes. He did so to avoid hitting a young woman who had bolted out to cross the street at the last second—it almost became her last move in the process. Having to deal with the dregs of the public as they do on a daily basis, it came as no surprise the driver launched into a not-so-under-his-breath volley of expletives directed at the lady that would have made a sailor blush.
In trying to inject some levity into the situation, I piped up to the increasingly irate individual, “Nah dude, she’s cool. She’s wearing a Lord Dying shirt.” He looked at me with confused disdain, obviously not having a single clue what I was talking about. Luckily, for both of us, I didn’t have the time, energy, or impulse to rant about how she was wearing a shirt from their Poisoned Altars album and how much of an improvement it was over the band’s Summon the Faithless debut and how I was looking forward to seeing what next steps forward the Portland sludge slammers were going to make with their next record.
Mysterium Tremendum is that next record and sweet goddamn if Lord Dying hasn’t made an astronomical leap forward in the four years since! The album is a full-on concept record on the topic of death, dealing with mortality, wondering what’s on the other side, and personal experiences with finality that run beyond their snazzy band name. Musically, however, Lord Dying’s forward movement has been even more considerable. The infusion of sludge metal with melodic classic rock that made Poisoned Altars one of my favourites of 2015 has been expanded upon, massively and masterfully. What the core duo of Chris Evans and Erik Olson have created is analogous to the setting off of fireworks: a core explosion has tendrils of beauty shooting off in a number of controlled, concentric directions that are equally fascinating and joyous to behold. If you’re looking for a less flowery description, think of the dynamic duo taking their sludge metal starting point and writing the heaviest Yes album that Yes never wrote and filtering it through the classic instrumentals from Ride the Lightning, Master of Puppets and ...And Justice for All.
The difference in approach puts a stamp on the album the deeper you get into its running time, but there are hints at the changes to come as early as opener “Envy the End” where moody cleanliness and smooth crooning break up the syrupy riff thunder and tectonic power chord shifting. It’s almost as if the band doesn’t want to push the envelope or shock their horn-rimmed and bearded fan base from the onset. No worries, there are plenty of would-be-alienating moments to come. Like “Tearing at the Fabric of Consciousness” which starts with Nick Cave-meets-Alan Parsons-meets-George Costanza wrapped in a velvet leisure suit (if it were socially acceptable) vocal duet before swinging between crunchy prog that lands like a silky meteorite somewhere between Yes’ Fragile and Mastodon’s Blood Mountain.
“Nearing the End of the Curling Worm” is when things start to really diverge from the mountainous thunder typically and previously associated with Lord Dying. The song is reminiscent of the conceptual roominess of Pink Floyd's The Wall done with distorted guitars and adherence to “The Call of Ktulu.” From that point on all bets are off. “The End of Experience” summons a bizarre combination of spidery riffs dripping molasses, flashy guitar heroics, philosophical ruminations, monolithic doom, and more vintage Metallica vocal-less-ness. “Even the Darkness Went Away” houses strains of minstrel-esque, acoustic folk in tunes that are more Fairport Convention than Fistula. “Exploring Inward” sounds like the pouring of Steve Vai’s Passion and Warfare over the colossal arc of Amenra. They even explore addendums to their own take on heaviness with “Severed Forever” using layered lines of guitars as more (read: never enough) vintage Metallica-inspired melodic texture riding above palm muted tar-thick tones and drums with enough oomph to crumble ancient ramparts.
The diversity and alteration of Lord Dying’s approach are at a high water mark throughout this, their third album. At first, the expanded approach is a bit of a shock the sounds in spots will take some back. The album is definitely a grower requiring the listener to both open their minds and suspend whatever preconceived notions the band previously itself created for itself. Personally, I didn’t dig the record at first. However, repeated listens has had it grow on me to the where it’s a case of absolute immersion when it comes on and I actually get chills during the second half of closer “Saying Goodbye to Physical Form.” And to the aforementioned unidentified Lord Dying fan, when it comes to protecting your honour and safety from irate large vehicle operators with hair-triggers, I’ve got your back.