It’s been an agonizingly long five years since Attic released their first album, The Invocation. While that debut recording initially came in under the radar, its skillful and unapologetic commitment to King Diamond-style heavy metal earned the band a loyal following. At last, Attic has unleashed their sophomore effort on the world, though the result is a disappointing outing plagued by murky sound production and homogenized songwriting. The exciting and memorable tracks of The Invocation that made it one of the best NWOTHM albums to date are in short supply on the band’s follow-up, leaving a murky and frequently overlong group of songs that do not linger in the mind. A handful of excellent songs attempt to redeem the album, though they are too little to pull Sanctimonious from the mediocrity in which it is mired.
Sanctimonious maintains much of the band’s established sound, though it’s apparent from the outset that the songwriting has developed a more progressive style, not unlike the King’s best albums. Song lengths tend to run longer than on The Invocation, with several tracks landing beyond the six and seven-minute mark. The greater running time never feels like a burden on the listening experience, but neither does the music ever fulfill the potential afforded by it. Extended instrumental sections lack meaningful and memorable guitar work, and too little diversity within each song structure leaves many entries with a muddy consistency that’s missing standout features.
However, the biggest black mark on Sanctimonious is the muffled sound production and mastering. The recording feels significantly cloudier than The Invocation, with the instruments coming through with a distant, hollow sound. The bass guitar is often obscured, and the impressively powerful drumming style from J.P., the band’s only new member, is undercut by a lack of meaningful size and depth afforded to it in the mix. The vocal sections push forward too hard, further relegating the excellent musicianship of the other players to a support role that is a poor fit for the elaborate and dense song constructions. This isn’t entirely a deal breaker, but it’s a major disappointment that affects the enjoyment and clarity of the entire recording. Fortunately, beneath the sub-par presentation is some commendable songwriting and execution.
A low-key organ track, “Ludicium Dei,” ushers in the album in appropriate fashion, with Meister Cagliostro delivering a soft falsetto over the instrument for added atmosphere. It works well as an opener, though two more short organ tracks later in the recording retroactively diminish its uniqueness and impact. That said, the transition from “Ludicium Dei” into the album’s title track is a finely executed bit of album composition that generates excitement for the recording.
The anticipation is rewarded immediately on “Sanctimonious,” which is easily one of the album’s strongest entries. A driving rhythm section coupled with forceful tremolo guitar work lay a thunderous foundation upon which the Meister can ply his craft. Well chosen breakdowns and fills appropriately stagger the velocity of the music and add enough diversity to keep the song fresh throughout its nearly six-minute run time.
On “Sanctimonious,” it becomes apparent there is greater detail and variety in the vocal efforts than on The Invocation, and it is the one element of Sanctimonious that is clearly an improvement over the band’s first release. Gentle falsetto cries transform into full-throated shrieks before descending into guttural and emphatic chants with apparent effortlessness. The abrupt shifts between the disparate approaches could easily feel chaotic or disjointed, and the decision on when to make these adjustments occasionally feels arbitrary, but true to his name, the Meister pulls it off with inspired virtuosity. There is an understanding at work of how each voice functions within the song, and the rapidly shifting delivery creates an unpredictable and exciting experience that feels natural throughout the album’s duration.
A “Serpent in the Pulpit” follows up the title track with a more thoughtful and downtempo approach, riding a rolling rhythm behind a predominately falsetto vocal delivery. A quiet and slightly discordant guitar interlude late in the song is a welcome reprieve that offers one of the album’s most unique moments. The slower pace of the song offers more room for melody, which comes through in the opening riff and the chorus vocals, and the intro to the song is one of the album’s most distinctive.
“Penalized” and “Sinless” continue in the same vein as the title track, with thunderous drumming and aggressive vocals pounding out the core of the song while elaborate guitar solos weave their way throughout. These guitar melodies add a gracefulness that contrasts nicely with the coarse vocal sections and help tie the song’s different elements together. “Penalized” and “Sinless” are notably separated by a non-song, “Scrupulosity,” which features Meister speaking over an organ interlude. Despite the fact these types of spoken word pieces were a staple of King Diamond albums, they were entirely absent from Attic’s first effort. As with all concept albums, these story-based entries tend to be a detriment to the musical composition of the album while offering something different for those who have a strong interest in the lyrical content. The value of the song’s inclusion is consequently a bit of a toss-up.
The back half of the album delivers a pair of gems, including “The Hound of Heaven,” which stands almost unquestionably as the recording’s strongest track. With its roaring drum sections, distinctive chorus vocals, and satisfying guitar melodies, the song was well chosen as the album’s lead single and recipient of a brilliant music video. “Dark Hosanna” is another notable entry, opening with a gentle acoustic guitar and somber vocal section before expanding into a lush and melancholic composition that is also the most downtempo full track on the album. The air of regret pervading the atmosphere of “Dark Hosanna” gives it a unique character that stands out from the many raucous pieces around it.
The songwriting on Sanctimonious is solid throughout, though it begins to suffer from flavor fatigue before its conclusion. Even after multiple listens it is difficult to find unique moments among it all. Songs like “Die Engelmacherin” and “There Is No God” blur together just as some of the slower tracks like “A Serpent in the Pulpit” and “On Choir Stalls” tend to lack remarkable identities when considered in the album’s 13-song tracklist. The recording clocks in at a massive 64 minutes, though the running length is difficult to justify with so few memorable moments. The bulky running time never quite feels burdensome, yet if the half the songs were left out it would not markedly diminish the album’s overall quality. The handful of organ tracks further add to the unnecessary bulk of the recording, and though they cannot exactly be called filler on an album of such great length, they still tend to feel like unsuccessful and unnecessary intermissions included only to help the band reach a lucky-number-13 songs.
With the exception of “Sanctimonious,” “The Hound of Heaven,” and possibly “Dark Hosanna,” Sanctimonious tends to feel like one exceptionally long song. Too few distinguishing features occupy the musical landscape to break up the songs, and listeners are given little sense of space or progress as the story unfolds. This is further compounded by the muffled recording quality. Ultimately, it is difficult to pick out specific tracks that are worth returning to. In contrast with The Invocation, on which every song was a notable entry, Sanctimonious feels apathetic, and the fault primarily lies in the paucity of distinctive melodies from the guitars and vocals. The striking, almost anthemic tracks of the band’s debut are in very short supply here, and the technical competence of the band isn’t enough to overcome their absence.
Sanctimonious would be a welcome surprise from any other band, but coming from the creators of one of the finest true heavy metal albums this side of the 1980s, it is a distinctly disappointing outing. Substandard sound production grounds the experience before it takes off, and the abundance of overly similar songs provides little compulsion to hear the recording in its entirety. A pair of outstanding songs save the album from mediocrity, but it ultimately lacks the spark it needs to stand as the modern classic it had every right to be.
Rating: 72 / 100
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