Not everything I'll review this week is from a band I discovered through Apocalypse Later a couple of years ago, but here's another one. Katharos XIII are a black/doom metal band from Timișoara, Romania, but they're also categorised as dark jazz, a genre I'd never even heard of but I promptly fell in love with anyway. At least on that 2019 album, Palindrome, they were a combination of slow doomy riffs and soloing saxophone, bleak black metal shrieks and ethereal but commanding clean female vocals. No, you wouldn't expect these elements to sit together but, holy crap, they work.
Let me phrase it in traditionally clichéd polarising fashion. You're either going to hate this from its very outset or Katharos XIII will become an unforgettable changing experience, because you have never heard anything like this before and you can't let the moment go. As with Palindrome, this is a long album, its hour plus running time broken across only six tracks, and, as with Palindrome, I'm unable to let each of those tracks just shift into the next. I had to repeat listen to each one before I could move onto the next one, just to come to terms with what it had done.
Neurastenia is the first, an ambitious but uncompromising piece to kick things off, given that it's a fourteen minute epic. It's made up of the components I mentioned above, sans the shrieks, but it's also told in wavelike modulations, which are hypnotic electronica in the midsection. The emotional depth is stunning, Manuela Marchis-Blînda a will-o-the-wisp leading us we know not where. It's an haunting piece of music, an inspiration and a warning, a treat and an ending.
The Golden Season is almost shocking because it begins with recognisable riffs, though the layers of keyboards soon draped across the music render it denser and more obscured. Until, that is, the entire piece drops into a delicate pool of atmosphere and everything's peace and suspension with saxophone almost as whalesong, soothing and reaffirming. Which, of course, lasts until it doesn't, a black metal wall of sound looming out of nowhere and changing everything, the guitars sheets of sound, the keyboards all enshrouding, the bass a prowling beast, the clean vocals a lament, the result an emotional weight, a journey from drifting freedom to cosmic albatross of guilt that's an impactful ten minutes indeed.
Trying to gather my senses to be able to offer a coherent review, I should point out that this one is a lot more pulsing than its predecessor. It does most of the same things but it throbs as if it's alive and might just continue onwards after the musicians leave the studio. This is similar dark jazz but more organic, shifting away from the smoky cafés and shadowed streets of films noir inside a live body. It's sticky and palpable. It breathes. And it may not be entirely human, the title track some sort of supernatural mutation or alien infestation. This is music for elder gods, listening from the dark gaps beyond the stars, behind the celestial gates that bind them.
The hardest task I have is to suggest what this sounds like in comparisons. Well, it's Wolves in the Throne Room and Jarboe and Bill Evans and Coil and Celtic Frost and John Zorn and Vangelis and maybe György Ligeti. You know, that hackneyed old combo. Every track here is a work of dark art. I can't rank them. They're all astounding and they each do something different but each is done to a degree that's difficult to fathom. I think I spent the second half of the title track utterly stupefied, my mouth open and the world forgotten. I felt like the Highlander receiving the Quickening. And, once it ended, From the Light of Flesh spun up delicate and utterly beautiful and it destroyed me.
This is an unparalled emotional journey. It may well be my album of the year. Maybe I'll regain the power of speech in a week or so. Maybe I won't need that ever again.