Released: 2015, Massacre Records
Reviewer: Peter Atkinson
Nearly a decade after issuing their fifth album, Rubicon, Belgian – or, more precisely, Flemish - black metal avant gardists Ancient Rites finally deliver a follow-up. Given its ambitious, expansive scope and broad sonic palette, perhaps it's no surprise it took so long.
Laguz is a crazy-quilt mashup of black metal bombast, folk and Viking metal theatrics and power metal flamboyance slathered in orchestration and historical conceptualizing and topped by Gunther Theys' breathy, spoken word-like vocals that make the whole thing seem like the recitation of an epic poem set to music. It sounds positively Tolkien-esque, even though there is nothing quite so fantastical going here – Laguz is more about the trials and tribulations of ancient European civilization than anything else.
Theys' approach is so unorthodox that it takes some getting used to – even though the band have been around since 1988 – but it is certainly a nice change from the usual caterwauling. And it definitely grabs your attention.
Despite shedding some of their lineup in the time between Rubicon and Laguz – the former septet is now down to a quartet – the guts of the band (Theys, guitarists Erik Sprooten and Domingo Smets, who switches over from bass, and drummer Walter Van Cortenberg) held together, which certainly helped in the execution of this magnum opus. For all of its classical embellishments and grandiosity, Laguz is tightly played and engaging where it very easily could have sounded frilly, pompous or outright ridiculous.
The careening keyboard/string accompaniment to “Von Gott Entfernt,” for example, is lock-step with Van Cortenberg's galloping drums – he is an absolute beast throughout - and Sprooten and Smets' guitar tremolo. And where the orchestration is used to accentuate the drama here, as on “Apostata (Imperator Fidelis)” or “Legio V Alaudae (Fifth Larks Legion),” it doesn't get laid on so thick as to make it seem schticky. The production, too, is stellar: well balanced enough to bring out all of the instrumentation yet not so bombastic to turn it into a symphonic cacophony.
Ancient Rites not only haven't missed a step during the long break after Rubicon, during which label situations were rectified, etc., they've take a giant leap forward with Laguz. Though at times overwrought, it nevertheless is a pretty stunning work. Hopefully, it's follow up won't take so damn long.