An undeservedly disappointing attempt at another goth metal revival
Originally formed as a side project after the hiatus of the highly influential industrial band Fear Factory, Ascension of the Watchers started up when vocalist Burton C. Bell joined forces with his ex-Fear Factory and Ministry band member John Bechdel. Following yet another Fear Factory hiatus, Ascension of the Watchers released a self titled demo as well as the relatively forgotten Numinosum (2008), but the band then remained silent until the 2018 mention of a new album and member, Jayce Lewis (Queen, Gary Numan). Now in 2020, following his official departure from Fear Factory after a 31-year tenure, Burton C. Bell has moved on to a new era of creativity that is showcased through Ascension of the Watchers’ latest release, Apocrypha.
The opening track “Ghost Heart,” released earlier as Apocrypha‘s first single, sets the template for the rest of the album that follows suit. The somewhat autumnal evocation of mood is promoted by the cold production and heavily goth-influenced songwriting, bordering closer to sounds explored in the 1980’s by The Cure and Depeche Mode.
“The End Is Always The Beginning” adds a heavy grit that keeps the atmospheric nature of the dark post-punk ’80s sound. Yet it builds upon a subtly present appreciation for heavy and progressive metal, best displaying new member Jayce Lewis’ energetic drum fills and chops that cut through the mix particularly well, before diving into the deep abyss of the following track.
The title track fills out a hefty six-and-a-half minute duration, one of the first major indications on the album of the significant departure from Bell’s previous work. With the longevity actually working against it rather than building up tension and released energy, “Apocrypha” seems to just fill up time, with a handful of verse and chorus alterations that don’t really go anywhere interesting.
“A Wolf Interlude,” assumedly a transition track despite its length and melodies, draws focus back onto the beloved gothic industrial explosion of the mid-late 1980s. Bell’s extremely reserved and softer performance on that track is in stark contrast to the following ballad “Honoree,” which showcases a distinctive version of Bell’s voice through autotune and voice synthesis akin to songwriter Imogen Heap or electronic pioneers Kraftwerk. The lyricism and songwriting suffer through unimaginative word choice and predictable chord progressions alike before the last half revitalizes the song with full-sounding guitar arpeggiations.
“Stormcrow” picks up right where “The End Is Always The Beginning” left off, teasing with hard-rock energy while also maintaining the same charm and moodiness that is defined on the majority of the album. But it doesn’t offer much in terms of dynamic or songwriting variation, as it draws on for far too long yet again.
“Cygnus Aeon” brings worlds together as showcased on the remainder of the songs, as it builds up and around an eerie vocal sample snippet and interesting interplay between the drums and vocals, yet more importantly helps transition into the epic “Key To The Cosmos,” which, despite being one of the longer tracks, doesn’t actually lose the listener along the journey. The post-rock tinge through buildups and atmosphere definitely helps define the artistic and poetic merit that bands such as Killing Joke and Ministry (both of which featured Bechdel) had to offer in the prime of gothic rock.
As the album winds down, “Bells Of Perdition” tones up the sludge factor and space vibe through the reverberated guitar and synth pads, flirting with the aesthetic of pure slowcore by not picking up tempo or energy, save for the hits around the chorus. The track could have (and should have) been a fantastic means to close out the album.
That tasteful pacing is thrown off balance with the utterly confusing track “Wanderers,” which sounds almost nothing like the entire catalogue of music presented before it–and not in the best way. All of the tense atmospheres produced by shimmering ambient melodies and soundscapes are disillusioned by the bright and cheery nature of the song. Cascading in between a slightly shoegaze section and unnecessarily long buildups, the song remains fine at best, yet ruins almost all of the momentum from the previous song.
Almost all of the nuance and subtlety that make the album good are now completely thrown out on the insufferably sub-par cover of Terence Trent Darby’s “Sign Your Name.” Its eerie and powerful (yet cliche) chord progression makes it overtly dramatic, and not in a good way. Although the song does manage to build up into a distorted wall of sound from the quiet, textural acoustic strumming at the beginning, there is no real depth on the album’s dry closing track.
Apocrypha succeeds at bringing back to life a hugely influential and beloved sound that faded more than 30 years ago. But there is an overall mediocrity that is offered, at least when compared to the original Neo-goth enthusiasts like Type O Negative or even revival contemporaries like The Black Queen, the main difference ultimately being the unfortunately rehashed and boring attempt by an otherwise legendary lineup full of potential.