Named Khang until vocalist Bri was replaced by Paul Catten in 2004, Lazarus Blackstar are easily the UK’s most underrated underground band. They have a decent-sized back catalogue of albums, demos and EPs, and gigs with bands like Electric Wizard and Anaal Nathrakh under their belts, but have always remained unjustifiably unsung.
A few years and a couple of minor line-up changes down the line, the northern doom lords present to us now third full-length Hymns for the Cursed. It’s the perfect example of a band’s natural evolution; doing what they’re best at, incorporating new touches but never forcing anything. It sounds like a natural progression from 2008’s evil and melancholy Tomb of Internal Winter EP, which in turn was a slightly more complex beast than 2007’s masterpiece Funeral Voyeur.
First thing of note is the slightly more melodic turn the music has taken. Don’t turn your noses up, Hymns… is still one of the heaviest albums of the year, but the swampy guitars of Lee and Izak often wend their way around one another between concrete riffs rather than merge into the soupy fug of earlier recordings (my first taste of LB was ‘Defaced Photograph’, from their debut full-length Revelations, and I marvelled that their guitar tone was the aural equivalent of swimming in treacle). At nearly 11 minutes long, ‘A Hymn for the Cursed’ is the ideal showcase for Lazarus Blackstar circa 2012. It crawls through a despondent verse, new(ish) vocalist Mikhell rumbling over grimly graceful guitars until the chorus, all broken shrieking and monolithic riff, lands atop your head. At about 4 and a half minutes in the tempo notches up slightly for a devilishly headbang-able bridge before sinking back into the depths of misery, and popping back up again at the end of the track as a cacophonous climax. ‘At The Foot of the Coldest Mountain’ also manages to cram these newer facets into its shorter five-minute duration with its intricate guitar bridges and slightly gothic (as in dark, not as in frilly) atmospherics.
As a vocalist, it’s obvious that the voice stands out most for me and it would be impossible to review this new offering without discussing Mikhell, who brings a new and slightly different shade of black to the Lazarus pot both vocally and lyrically. While Paul Catten’s lyrics were sinister, claustrophobic and even perverse, Mikhell takes an approach which manages to be both more poetic and more simplistic, speaking of alienation, loss and loneliness. Catten’s howling and leering will always give me goosebumps but Mikhell is the more versatile vocalist; gargling and roaring like a long-dormant swamp creature just disturbed, unleashing shrieks of rolling-in-broken-glass futility and occasionally employing an almost Neurosis-y bellow (see ‘Cold Hands Grow Pale’). In short, ladies and germs, he fits like a glove.
Melodic and interesting it may be, but don’t let that make you think Lazarus Blackstar are scrimping on what they do best: being really fucking miserable. Hymns for the Cursed should come with a health warning forbidding anyone with the slightest suicidal tendency from listening – it’s as bleak as it is violent, as all good doom should be! The worst thing a band can do is try and force new directions according to the latest sub-genre du jour but the second worst is for a band to stagnate in the same sound forever (modern trad doom bands, I’m looking at you). Lazarus Blackstar have managed to avoid both of these traps, producing something which sounds familiar but sounds comfortably advanced enough to never be boring.
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