PICK OF THE WEEK: SubRosa’s grim dystopian story ‘…Battle of Ages’ overflows with heavy emotion

Photo by Chris Martindale

Photo by Chris Martindale

There are those bands that always know a way to reach deep down inside of you and bruise everything contained within your body. No matter where you are or what you’re doing, there is no way to escape their grasp or shake their influence. You’re devastated, and trying to pick up the pieces left behind is your only option.

Salt Lake City doom quintet SubRosa are one of those bands for me. With each new release, they dig within themselves and pour out a doom-bloodied collection of ballads that quake the Earth and bring my heart nearly to a stop. Neurosis have that same impact on me, and I realized with SubRosa’s new, fourth record “For This We Fought the Battle of Ages,” that this band is in that same hallowed ground. Each new record is an event, a collection that must be absorbed multiple times to be totally understood and that consumes my time. I have listened to this record easily in double digits since receiving the music, and every trip is a rush of emotion, a grasp at my chest. This album has SubRosa using Yevgeny Zamyatin’s 1921 novel We (it was translated into English in 1924) as their inspiration, a tale of a future dystopian society where dreams are thought to be a product of mental illness, and mind-altering substances and sex for pleasure are deemed illegal in the society of One State. People live in glass apartments, allowing for strict state surveillance, and protagonist D-503 documents his day-to-day struggles in a journal he hopes to have placed in a spaceship being used to invade other planets. It’s a story that’s as terrifying today (Green Wall, anyone?), not to mention sobering, when applied to what is going on around us.

SubRosa coverTackling this story, as well as the longer, more complex compositions SubRosa unfurl on this record, is by design as the five members—guitarist/vocalist Rebecca Vernon, violinists Sarah Pendleton and Kim Pack, bassist Levi Hanna, and drummer Andy Patterson—sought to push themselves to new heights and determine just what this band was capable of accomplishing. As a result, we find songs that feel more like epics than regular tracks, and as much as two 15-minute-plus tracks and one that approaches 14 minutes might seem to be asking a lot, they never do. They flow beautifully, compellingly, with the conviction of the story flowing (sometimes spitting) from Vernon’s mouth, the dual violins nearly drawing tears, and the rhythm section adding the proper amount of grit to deal supreme heaviness.

“Despair Is a Siren,” the 15:25 opener, details what’s happening in We, and it’s a sweeping, jarring cut that begins with violins whirring in like sirens, and the track trickling open. “I know there’s another world,” Vernon sings, poking at new awareness and expanded realities, as the track begins to tear apart. “My skin doesn’t fit anymore,” Vernon writhes as the track keeps flowing, taking on tumult and simmering power that gains momentum. The song gets heavier as it goes, with the strings swarming and shocking, the guitars trudging, and Vernon defiantly singing, “I’m not sleeping in glass chambers, who’s the dead one now?” as the cut bleeds to its finish. “Wound of the Warden” is a hefty 13:28, and it kicks off with a solid, sooty bassline and the track unloading crunch, with Vernon vowing, “One day they’ll be grateful,” pointing at sacrifices ahead. The tempo becomes reflective and even tender at a point before the music and the darkness return. “Laughter ceases at the gates,” Vernon wails, before warning, “Not one misstep, not one mistake,” as the foreboding feelings meet up with the swirling conclusion.

“Black Majesty” opens with strings humming and Vernon singing nakedly and vulnerably over top, before the power kicks in with her practically howling, “Isn’t it beautiful?” That sentiment is all over this song and revisits us later. The song swells into a deluge, with the hammers dropped hard and the band digging deep within. Relentless hammering arrives, loosening teeth, while Vernon prods, “Isn’t it beautiful to live and die alone?” The crunch continues but eventually gives way as the song trickles out with Vernon noting a silence so profound it’s painful. “Il Cappio,” which is noose in Italian, is a quick, stirring interlude, leading into “Killing Rapture” that settles in with cascading strings and even some pedal guitar to add sorrowful texture.  The pace is moody and shadowy, with verses pulling at your heart and conviction cutting into your skin. The momentum gains steam as the volume rises, with the strings sinking their teeth, the storm bearing down, as the band unloads hard. It feels like the walls are collapsing all around, with Vernon noting a society “where everything’s been decided for us,” as each element falls away. Closer “Troubled Cells” is a crusher for sure, a track full of sadness, despair, and raw anger. It starts with a psyche wash that reminds of “No Quarter,” and the song takes a slow, heaving tempo. As things break open, Vernon laments, “If there’s no way through for you, there’s no way through for me,” leading into the emotions hitting a crescendo, first with the insistence of, “There is no greater good,” and later with the fiery declaration, “Paradise is a lie if we have to burn you at the stake to get inside.” Souls quiver and the curtain falls, as the song fades out, swallowed by a glimmering cloud.

It’s not going out on a limb to say SubRosa are one of the modern era’s best, most unique heavy metal bands, and they deliver enough emotion, tumult, and drama to fill an ocean. “For This We Fought the Battle of Ages” is another incredible triumph for the band, and incredible step ahead that seemed impossible after their past work, yet they pulled it off anyway. This is special event music, a record that can make you stop dead in your tracks, make you forget everything you’re doing, and get you involved heart and soul in an album and a story as relevant and powerful as anything else today.

For more on the band, go here: https://www.facebook.com/SubrosaSLC/

To buy the album, go here: https://www.profoundlorerecords.com/products-page/

For more on the label, go here: http://www.profoundlorerecords.com/

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