Chicago’s Avichi impressed the hell out of me with their 2011 release, The Devil’s Fractal, so much so that I interrogated guitarist/vocalist/mastermind Andrew Markuszewski at length about the album, and it came in just shy of making my top ten metal albums list for the year (which says more about what a strong year 2011 was for metal than it does about any short-comings on the album’s part). After three years of silence, Avichi is back with Catharsis Absolute, which sees Markuszewski continuing to refine his compelling approach to black metal.
While The Devil’s Fractal was a sprawling quasi-concept album detailing a dialog between man and Satan, Catharsis Absolute feels somehow catchier and more concise, in spite of only being about ten minutes shorter than the previous album. Without printed lyrics, it’s difficult to tell if this album possesses the same level of conceptual sophistication as its predecessor, but it certainly appears that Markuszewski is attempting to at once dig deeper and create something more streamlined. In this respect Catharsis Absolute succeeds; it’s forty-two minute run-time feels like maybe half that when you’re listening to it, yet the songs leave a much more immediate and lasting impression than those found on The Devil’s Fractal.
Markuszewski’s hypnotic songwriting brings to mind the likes of elder bands such as Burzum and Deathspell Omega, but Avichi doesn’t rehash the past. Instead, these points of reference are used as a springboard into territory that is all Markuszewski’s own, falling somewhere between full-on black metal orthodoxy and the gritty, rebellious spirit that has characterized USBM ever since American bands started slapping on the corpsepaint in the ’90s. Songs such as “Lightweaver” and “All Gods Fall” rely on repetition to worm their way into your soul, inducing the trance-out effect that’s missing from so much of today’s black metal, enhanced by a production scheme that emphasizes the sublime droning qualities of Markuszewski’s riffcraft.
What really helps set Catharsis Absolute apart are the small risks Markuszewski takes, such as beginning and ending the album with solo piano pieces, as well as incorporating piano and clean vocals into several of the black metal tracks. In a genre that’s as anti-innovation as black metal can often be, these types of subtleties make all the difference, and the skill with which Markuszewski weaves them into the fabric of the album without diluting any of its more visceral qualities is highly commendable. Although the closing title track runs a little long at almost eight minutes, its lilting tones make for an interesting comedown, with the piano mimicking the cyclical buzzing of the guitar riffs that came before.
Along with new releases from Murmur and The Ash Eaters, Catharsis Absolute has set the bar for American black metal as we kick off 2014. As USBM continues to assert its dominance, this album is an important reminder that one can still bring something unique to the table without deviating too wildly from the genre’s established parameters. By displaying both a reverence for black metal’s roots and a finespun approach to coloring outside the lines, Markuszewski has established a place for Avichi amongst the elite, creating his most complete-sounding and thoughtfully constructed work to date.