Two gentleman from Pheonix, Arizona would like to carry you atop a wave of guitar and rolling drums on a vaguely post-metal journey towards a distant temple. You should let them take you.
Tempel are a band that like to take their time. That this is an impressive début is indisputable, but that statement comes with the caveat that they’ve been around for over a decade and have apparently been working on this album for a good 3 years. But then for a two piece band to cook up something quite so majestic sounding as On the Steps of the Temple is an impressive feat whatever the time scale. They released the album themselves last year: Prosthetic Records later recognised they had something special on their hands and gave it a proper release in January, and in doing so gave the wider world it’s first great record of 2014.
I’m not sure what you’d categorise Tempel as. Through six tracks they cover an awful lot of ground. Hell, the first song on it’s own traverses a whole slew of metal sub genre’s in it’s 8 frantic minutes. It’s called Mountain and sounds a bit like hurtling down the side of one on a greased tea tray. It starts with some sombre clean guitars; a moment of calibration before the real fun begins. Then the action is go: cue black metal theatrics, chugging sludge, post-metal nodding, moments of feral death metal, judicious use of elegant keyboard – it’s hard to keep track of everything going on. There’s a moment towards the end where the song brilliantly swings pendulously between breakneck elasticated groove metal meeting and black metal fury, which is where I decided not to bother keeping track and just let it do whatever it was doing. It’s dizzying stuff, played out at a pace that would have been hard to keep up.
So, wisely, they don’t try. On the Steps… starts with a Mountain but is paced more like a valley – descending from Mountain’s peak to a boggy nadir before ascending once more on the other side. Rising from the Abyss is actually more of a descent, for it’s first half at least: it settles into a pace that the likes Isis would have found comfortable when they still owned the post-metal title. All the titular rising comes in the second half where layers of guitar are stacked atop one another as the song soars to a searing crescendo. The production and some of the guitar tones come straight from Devin Townsend’s play book – always a good place to look when you’re aiming for the grandiose. Then we get slower and quieter with Final Years, a song that wouldn’t sound out of place on one of the a more abrasive post-rock records – you could slip it onto a *Shels release without too much fuss. But this is no cheap exercise in crescendo-core: this a studied, brilliantly constructed bit of set-piece building. The guitar lines move, the strings stir and the whole thing culminates in a moment of utter beauty before abruptly dissipating. These guys didn’t spend all that time just to ape some well worn post-rock/metal clichés – there’s a craft at work here which sets them well apart from that crowd.
However at the bottom of the valley is the long slow trudge of The Mists that Shroud the Peaks, the only song here that struggles to justify it’s length. It’s the second longest track but it sure feels like the most long-winded. If Tempel aimed for this album to sound like a journey to those fabled Steps then this would be the part where it’s at it’s hardest. The riff lurches on like tired legs being forced to keep moving through sodden fields. But whilst it works thematically it outstays it’s welcome as a listening experience and is the only moment on the album that might launch a journey to the skip button. The record threatens to run out of steam here, but then the stunning Averitia gradually picks it back up with slow sombre picking and eerie guitar whines that sound vaguely like some kind of ghostly Spaghetti Western theme. Then things liven up with defiant riffs, choral backing and oddly elegant soloing. Bass is somewhat underused throughout On the Steps.. but here it’s at the heart of proceedings – driving the song onto it’s frenzied climax and then a slow build of a coda. It feels like it’s about to explode all over again before ending on something of a cliffhanger, teeing up the final track.
The finale, typically in a narrative, is where the final and seemingly insurmountable hurdle in a quest is taken on. Tempel duly deliver with something suitably epic (I’ve been trying to avoid that much overused and tainted word, but nothing else will quite do) – the tempo and aggression picks up to levels not seen since Mountain at the record’s opposite bookend, but this time it’s more blunt and bludgeoning: all muscular palm muted shredding and grinding. Then the denouement – the last few minutes build in intensity culminating in a full on melancholic black metal assault – the drums and guitars reaching terminal velocity until it all eventually breaks and stops. Then there’s a bit of a well earned rainy la Petit mort and we’re done.
I don’t normally like doing reviews that start with the first track and run through the whole record as it feels a bit corny. But it’s the only thing that felt appropriate here – whilst I’ll occasionally listen to Mountain or Averitia in isolation that only serves to make me want to listen to the whole thing back to front. The album-as-journey thing is a trope as old as the album itself (or at least as old as prog) but precious few over the years manage to really justify that conceit. Tempel have done so on first try, even if it took them a while. They’ve blithely ignored any genre parochialism and reached deep into whichever sub genre of metal they needed to in achieving their aims, and blurred it all together so that it never sounds like genre tourism for it’s own sake. It’s a dark, crushing, uplifting trek. January offered slim pickings for new music, but when the end of year reckoning for 2014 comes around On the Steps of the Temple is likely to stand out as one of it’s finest moments.
On the Steps of the Temple can be listen to and purchased at Tempel’s bandcamp page. It’s also for sale over on Prosthetic Record’s site – hopefully they’ll get some more vinyl in soon..