If you’re wanting a black metal album you can happily have on in the background whilst you go about your daily life, with all its elements set out neatly before you, this isn’t it. After roughly a dozen listens, I still don’t feel like I’m close to grasping even half of what The Ladder has to offer. Over the course of 7 tracks, Palace Of Worms showcase a vision of what metal can be that leaves almost everyone else looking like they’re struggling to keep up. This is the kind of album that transcends genre, and feels as if it is trying to reach beyond boundaries that are more than just musical. Hugely challenging yet vastly rewarding, The Ladder isn’t just the best record that Palace Of Worms have released; it’s a strong contender for album of the year.
The Ladder is the kind of album that is perhaps best described in terms of the atmosphere and emotions it conjures, rather than in strict musical terms. Whilst it’s easiest to term it as belonging – loosely – to black metal, that only tells part of the story (something that’s been true with all previous Palace Of Worms releases). There’s also death, doom, and dark ambient influences at play, giving The Ladder a much darker, more depressive air than many other black metal albums – even ones who are striving towards that kind of feel themselves. As with their contributions to recent split releases, the songs on The Ladder twist and turn, full of a multitude of ideas and movements. Yet for all their complexity, the songs never feel as if they are at risk of losing their way or are bloated; each evolution and shift feels natural, as if the songs themselves were living beings, feeling their way toward whatever sustenance they require.
But, as musically impressive as The Ladder is, it’s the emotional, almost spiritual character it possesses that raises it above so many other releases, even within Palace Of Worm’s already impressive discography. That’s not to say it’s spiritual in some theological sense, as is often the case within black metal – it’s not drawing from the same well of inspiration as, say, Deathspell Omega are. Rather, it’s spiritual in an existential, philosophical manner. This is an album that questions what we – as a species and as individuals – are here for, and presents no answers, only questions. There are moments when the depressive, uncompromisingly bleak nature of The Ladder comes crashing down in full force upon the listener, such as during the closing moments of “Nightworld”, where the relatively spacious nature of the music gives the desperate vocals incredible force. But what is most striking and effective is that there is still clearly a distinct humanity to the music, and that sense of connection – that this record was made by someone just like you or I – makes it all the darker and more horrific than almost anything else. It is a reflection of the darkness within us all, and it is deeply uncomfortable to hear it laid out in ways so raw and honest. Even interlude track “An Innate Sickness” provides little respite. Its almost dark ambient soundscapes being as haunting as anything else the album provides, with the ghostly vocals and distant, almost martial drums atop a subtle drone maintaining the spirit and character of the album whilst providing a change in musical direction.
Of course, it shouldn’t be forgotten that The Ladder is, first and foremost, a metal album, though to pin it to any one genre is to sell it desperately short. Many of the riffs and vocal techniques can be clearly traced back to black metal, albeit a kind that is much more progressive and adventurous than the genre typically aspires to be. The drums are treated as more than an after-thought, with small flourishes and fills amongst the blasts and double-bass hammering giving them extra character; and there’s also a clear understanding of when to ease off the blasts, such as during the closing moments of “From The Ash”, which features some very impressive technical cymbal-work of a kind not usually heard outside a Mgla record. Likewise, there’s an undeniably progressive, forward-thinking feel to the way that the riffs are structured, that makes it all the more impressive that Palace Of Worms is a solo endeavor (excluding guest spots from members of bands such as Mastery, Lotus Thief, and Atrament).
I am very reluctant to discuss The Ladder as I might many other albums though, talking about particular riffs or hooks that caught my attention. That’s because this is a record best appreciated as a single body of work, of which each song is only a part – it’s only when assessed as a whole that it becomes possible to really get to grips with and understand The Ladder. It may be a bleak, depressing album, but there is something remarkably satisfying about it, and even after so many listens, I feel like I’m only scratching the surface of what it has to offer. In many ways, the superb artwork sums the album up. It is unwelcoming, dark, and challenging… yet there is a certain something about it, beckoning you on, encouraging you to make that infinite climb in an attempt to reach whatever revelations await at the summit. It may be an impossible destination to reach, and the journey is long and difficult, but it is hard not to recommend the experience it provides. If I hear another record this year that is so astoundingly moving and deep, I will be amazed. This is incredible.
The Ladder is set for release on April 8th 2016, through Broken Limbs Recordings on vinyl (limited to 300 copies, 200 black, 100 on clear vinyl with red and black splatter), and via Acephale Winter Productions and Sentient Ruin Laboratories on cassette. For details on digital versions, follow Palace Of Worms on Facebook and Bandcamp.