AKHENATEN – Golden Serpent God

Exploring a variety of extreme metal traits and breaking up the intensities with elements inspired by soundtracks and world music, this 2018 release from Akhenaten is very interesting. It certainly isn’t your run of the mill death metal release. But then, you should expect nothing less than a sense of adventure and a progressive attitude from an album that “explores the forgotten paths of history” and is “steeped in the mythology of Ancient Egypt and Mesopotamia”.

The progressive and concept elements of the album are present instantly, as ‘Amulets of Smoke And Fire’ presents a very Eastern sounding musical arrangement, with synthesised strings, harps and lyres very much setting the scene. The eventual introduction of a very heavy guitar riff is obviously in complete contrast and huge bass drums make everything heavier still. Bringing in world music inspired drums behind the heavily pounded rock that’s quickly taken shape, you’d think they’d be lost somewhere in the noise, but the production and mix is so good on this disc that even a giant wall of sound appears to have a huge depth. The vocals are used sparingly at first, only really growling the title, but with most of the key ideas already in place, there’s a feeling this will get even more absorbing. Once they’ve warmed up, everything descends into full-scale death metal, but if you’re not adverse to intense pneumatics, the sheer power of the band should still be impressive. ‘Dragon of the Primordial Sea’ opens up far more, as Akhenaten mix epic progressive metal traits – again accented with Eastern melodies – with death metal vocals and furious drums. Throughout the track, the main melody – occasionally reminiscent of Iron Maiden’s ‘Powerslave’ – pierces through the growling voice and frantic drumming, always giving the feeling that Akhenaten believe in a strong melody, even if their desires to reach for the extremes can mask the 80s guitar sounds that are so desperate for excape. With a constantly droning keyboard on hand to add something more cinematic, the effect is like hearing Death covering Angra…it’s a little tiring, but it’s as tight as hell.

For those who like things less fussy, ‘Throne of the Shaman’ doesn’t mess about. With three minutes of almost pure death metal, the band draw influence from a classic early 90s style, but have the edge due to better production and one of the deepest drum sounds you’ll ever hear. Since that track only has metal concerns, it’s up to ‘Through The Stargate’ to redress the balance and as such, it’s a huge success with its three minutes of Egyptian inspired music. With plenty of bell-like tinkling, swirling keys and traditional percussion that conjures mental imagery of North African street markets, it sounds like something on loan from a Tuatara LP. Finally fusing all of their great ideas again, ‘Kingdom of Death’ very much impresses with a barrage of tech-death traits, some insane drumming speeds and contrasting cinematic keys. Linking everything, the guitars shred and the vocals – here, somewhat intrusive – attack at full pelt. Tighter and more adventurous than ‘Dragon’, this eventually slows down a couple of notches to pummel a great DevilDriver-esque riff against pneumatic drums and heavy use of keys. When the vocals cease and the drums launch into a few bars of deep tribal groove, it’s absolutely amazing.

For those hoping the band could stretch out even further, ‘Akashic Field: Enter Arcana Catacombs’ begins with four minutes worth of traditional Arabic music. Tabla, finger cymbals and percussive elements all settle into a repetitive riff, sounding not unlike Tuatara once again, before a drone arrives and signifies that something heavier might be on the horizon. That’s where a big surprise occurs – there is no heavier bit! Realising that all great albums should have variety, the second movement of this track finds a more percussive melody with even more tabla and steel drums. It very much takes cues from Soulfly and their many self-titled experiments which, obviously, is a very good thing. Across seven minutes, this really builds a visual image and lends a feeling of adventure. If you came for metal – and especially the kind of intensive metal Akhenaten are capable of delivering – you might not find anything interesting here, but then that’d be your loss…

Back into metal territory, ‘God of Creation’ sets up some very traditional death metal riffs, dictated by extreme drumming and dirgy guitars, but as before, the band make sure there’s a semi-melodic root throughout, thanks to some very prominent keys laying down huge blankets of eastern influenced sounds. The lyrics are very narrative driven, but the deep death growl renders most of them inaudible, though in death metal terms, things aren’t completely impenetrable. Elsewhere, ‘Apophis: The Serpent’ retreads the same path as a couple of the earlier numbers, with a grounding in melodic death metal, though by now, the fusion of heavy styles sounds better than ever. This band are so tight musically that even if this track does sound somewhat recycled, the album as a whole rarely fails in its goals.

Best of all, though, is ‘Soundtrack of The Sun’, where Akhenaten throw another curveball…and this one’s fucking massive! Assuming you’re still listening, by now you’ll be used to them mixing classic death metal with a little tech-death and prog; you’ll also be more than familiar with their soundtrack meanderings. This track takes everything a step further and uses programmed drums to set up dance-oriented rhythms, which when set up against the keys and eastern finger-picking results in about as fine an impersonation of the mighty Ozric Tentacles you’re ever likely to hear.

The influences may be familiar, but the results are still stellar. This provokes a feeling that makes you just want to close your eyes and bob your head constantly. Its only disappointment is that it wraps up at around six minutes, at around the point that the Ozrics – and to a lesser degree, System 7 – would realise the audience is just getting warmed up!

Progressive metal doesn’t have to sound like Dream Theater and death metal doesn’t always have to be played straight to be at its best. In both its sense of power and keenness to push boundaries, this album by Akhenaten is a huge success. While the constant Egyptian flourishes are likely to be the most memorable element of this album in the long term, it’s use of heavy keys – and the fact their always audible, too – also goes a long way to making the album as interesting as it is. It’s fair to say that if you have no tolerance for death metal – ‘Soundtrack To The Sun’ and ‘…Arcana Catacombs’ aside – you’ll be left absolutely cold, but for those who love extreme metal but are also in possession of an open musical mind, then ‘Golden Serpent God’ is a progressive death classic in waiting.

June/July 2018