It’s fairly surprising that, according to the authority that is Metal Archives, only two metal bands have opted for the name Church. The first band to claim the name got no further than releasing two demo tapes in the early years of the millennium, one of which contained a Coal Chamber cover. Thankfully, the still-active Church hailing from Sacramento have, instead, released one of the most stunning doom albums I’ve heard in some time. Unanswered Hymns contains three soul-searing tracks, bringing about the best of sludge and majestic funeral doom in to one glorious whole. By turns this is primitive, forceful, and gloriously majestic, but never less than awe-inspiring. There’s no way to say it without risking hyperbole, but such is the combination of power, beauty, and raw ugliness on display here that Unanswered Hymns is a strong contender for album of the year.
As the album title indicates, Unanswered Hymns is no easy ride. Opener “Dawning” begins in a lumbering, malicious manner, with weighty bass and drum hits underpinning guitars that are full of unease and anxiety. Eva’s vocals float above proceedings, ethereal and haunting, as if from some distant, unseen observer, before extreme metal bellows crash in with force and power. Taken as a whole, the imagery it creates is primordial; there is something pre-historic about the music here. Not in the sense that it is primitive or crude, but that it taps in to the lizard part of your brain, the genetic memories that recall nights spent fearing the unknown and gazing at the stars in wonder. This aspect is maintained throughout the rest of the song – no easy feat, considering it is over 19 minutes long – no matter what direction it takes you in.
As you’d expect from a song of such length, there are several distinct sections, and whilst Church may spend time on a particular passage or emphasis (it is doom; this is to be expected), they do not let any part of the song over-stay its welcome. Instead, “Dawning” is a prime example of a track that pulls you in to the mood it wishes to create, the song surrounding the listener like a cocoon. It holds you in its thrall, even as the opening primeval sludge moves in to the lighter mid-section, which is a definite highlight. There is something other-worldly about this passage, with the guitars possessing a sense of aching and longing, reaching for some key truth that is forever beyond reach; whilst the vocals are once again haunting and ghostly. It is a truly cathartic moment when extra distortion and volume is applied to the guitars as this passage reaches its climax; and that’s to say nothing of the guitar solo towards the end of the song. “Dawning” is hardly an easy listen, and it will leave you battered and bruised, but good lord is it ever a rewarding one; and just to re-cap, this is only the first track.
“Stargazer” follows, at a comparatively concise 11 minutes, with a relatively spacious opening passage soon giving way to crushing doom – the sort that is drenched in emotion, pulling your soul through the grime and filth as it cleanses itself of all sins. There is an immense sadness hanging over this song, a black cloud of negativity that is nonetheless remarkably welcoming (at least, as far as extreme music can be); and when the song shifts slightly at the five minute mark, it is remarkable. A heart-wrenching guitar line rises up above the murk, majestic and hopelessly doomed, more emotional than any vocals or words could ever be; when combined with Eva’s clean vocals, it can’t help but make your skin break in gooseflesh, such is its power. The song holds you this way until it closes, and in truth, there are no words that do justice to the feeling of catharsis it possesses. It’s my favourite track on the album, and one of the best doom songs I’ve heard in years.
Final track “Offering” is more up-front and violent, lumbering onward in the way the best extreme doom does, with the riffs and drums hitting like a punch to the gut. There is no subtlety or grace from this track; it is all about the raw, ugly side of doom, as the section beginning just before the four minute mark makes clear. The tempo drops down to an absolute crawl, and such is the violence inherent in the music and vocals that it is clear: any chance of salvation is gone. The only variation here is in shades of black, and the gradual introduction of feedback as the song crawls towards its end reaches its apex with all else crowded out. The song ends in a cacophony that collapses under its own weight, both musically and emotionally, leaving a drone to see things out. It’s a fitting end, and perhaps the only one that could have worked.
As superb as each individual track is, it is when Unanswered Hymns is considered as a whole that it becomes undeniably clear just how superb an album this is. With it, Church have produced an album that is sure to sear itself upon your soul, leaving you drained yet satisfied; the emotional catharsis this album gives is hard to understate. Unanswered Hymns deserves to be recognised for the masterpiece that it is.