Monday 12 June 2023

Blood Ceremony - The Old Ways Remain (2023)

Country: Canada
Style: Occult Rock
Rating: 8/10
Release Date: 5 May 2023
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I dug into Blood Ceremony a little bit a few years back when I realised that occult rock was not only alive but very well indeed. They were formed in Toronto as far back as 2006 and they released their self-titled debut only two years later, but this is only their fifth album and their first in seven years after 2016's Lord of Misrule. The core of the band is the two remaining founder members, guitarist Sean Kennedy, who's also the songwriter, and lead vocalist Alia O'Brien, who started out as flautist but quickly moved into microphone duties and organ as well.

This fits with what I've heard from them before, albeit a tad lighter, and it's clearly good stuff, but it's also better than it initially seems, something I only gradually realised in a few ways. Part of it's that a majority of the songs build massively from their subdued openings to blistering conclusions, beginning with the opening couple of tracks, The Hellfire Club and Ipsissimus. The former is a little seductive and a little teasing as it builds but it holds back a little too, until it truly comes alive with a ripping guitar solo from Kennedy. The latter was always catchier, the sibilant title rolling well off O'Brien's tongue during the chorus, but again it comes alive with Kennedy's guitar solo, which this time is reminiscent of Blue Öyster Cult.

Part of it is that the album as a whole builds too. I don't dislike these early songs at all, but I found myself paying more and more attention as it ran on. It starts to get away from me too, in the sense that I forget to take notes and become lost in the music. Powers of Darkness is a tasty song as I'm listening to it, very much a vocal piece with some catchy themes, but I didn't realise how tasty until I wandered off to grab some lunch and realised that it was still playing in my head from memory, a mere couple of times through. It's an earworm of a track and a real highlight here.

So are the next couple of songs, as we roll into the stronger second half. There's a far folkier Black Sabbath in The Bonfires of Belloc Coombe, probably the best song from the standpoint of building as it goes. Widdershins is the heaviest song on the album, more akin to the weight of prior albums, and it remains heavy even when O'Brien's playful flute joins in during the finalé. Surprisingly, this heaviest song is followed by surely the lightest in Hecate, which is folky in comparison, revelling in its happiness in a sixties psychedelic pop style.

This album covers a heck of a lot of ground, from the delightful saxophone solo in Eugenie to more traditional fiddle work on Mossy Wood. The more I listen, the more the flute stands out, though it frequently takes a back seat when compared to this year's Jethro Tull album, RökFlöte. Lolly Williams finds a lively vibe that's all about making us move, whether we get up and dance or just bounce within our office chairs. Song of the Morrow, on the other hand, is progressive and epic, almost Led Zeppelin-esque in its structure, if not any particular component. There's even a dash of psychedelic Beatles in there too.

Given that I've already mentioned Jethro Tull, I should mention how similar they aren't, because a rock band with a clear folk influence that features a lead singer who also plays the flute suggests a close comparison and it's just not there. Sure, they were apparently Alia O'Brien's initial favourite band and their most obvious influence is in her flute, but that's about it. The folk here is different in origin, much more reminiscent of Pentangle or Fairport Convention when it isn't Black Sabbath or the various other pioneering occult rock bands. Check out Mossy Wood for that folk side, with a delightful fiddle and a catchy na na na vocal conclusion. It's Pentangle but heavier with a darkness hovering over it.

And so, while I liked this immediately, I like it a lot more after a few repeat listens and some time away from it to discover how much it had stuck in my brain. It's been a while since I dug into Blood Ceremony's previous albums but this feels a little lighter and a little more varied, especially with the psychedelic pop influence in Powers of Darkness and Hecate and the classic rock angle in some of Kennedy's solos and Song of the Morrow. The more I think about it, the more I like it. I think I've started off June with an 8/10.

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