I came to this album with some reservations. Pharaoh Overlord have a larger discography than the title of their latest release might suggest, and that discography is quite varied. The band is one of Jussi Lehtisalo’s many offshoots of Finnish band Circle (who themselves have probably released upwards of 50 full length albums by now), and has changed in sound considerably since their first release – while somewhat paradoxically keeping much of it, too. (In 2015, just to further confuse things, Circle released an album called Pharaoh Overlord, while Pharaoh Overlord released an album called Circle.) As to my reservations, they came largely from knowing that Aaron Turner (Isis, Sumac, Old Man Gloom and several other bands) was taking a larger role, having provided some sparse guest vocals to the previous album, 5 (which I think may actually be Pharaoh Overlord’s 10th studio album, and 15th overall!).
Don’t get me wrong, I don’t dislike Aaron Turner’s vocals (and this year’s Sumac album is absolutely fantastic, I highly recommend it). In addition, I loved 5, and I didn’t mind Turner’s vocals on that either – but they were used minimally for impact, rather than being a main attraction, so to speak. What I was worried about was how well the music of Pharaoh Overlord and the vocals of Aaron Turner might mesh when they formed the basis of the album, rather than a small part. Even after listening to the album several times, my mind is still melting, trying to get my head around the two quite disparate sounds. As well as working with Pharaoh Overlord previously, Aaron Turner has also collaborated with Tomi Leppänen and Jussi Lehtisalo in Split Cranium. Furthermore, Turner is no stranger to Krautrock and electronica, and has stated that both forms of music were influential in the sound of Isis (probably his most famous band), so it should make sense that he is happy to put his vocals to Pharaoh Overlord, who quite obviously enjoy Krautrock and electronica themselves. And yet….
6 begins with the fantastic beat of Path Eternal, and swathes of melodic synth textures. Turner’s initial vocalisations are not too incongruent, and then he starts singing (or growling, if you prefer), and it’s like listening to two different songs playing at the same time. I wouldn’t go as far to say I hated it when I first heard it, but I certainly wasn’t enamoured. But strange things happen over repeated listening. The thing is, the music is just so damn addictive and enjoyable, that soon I find myself able to ignore the vocals. And that’s where I’m unsure how to review this album. I’m enjoying it in spite of the vocals, which I’m sure are meant to be a key part. Ultimately, how much anyone enjoys this album may come down to how much they are able to tolerate (or even enjoy) harsh vocals.
But the music is worth persevering through, if you’re not necessarily a fan of the vocals. I admit I might not have done so were I not aware of the previous output of Pharaoh Overlord, and I would have been missing out. So if you take just one thing from this review, it’s don’t give up. Don’t even bother reading further. Just listen, and listen again. Let the music crawl under your skin and make itself at home. Let it caress you, and cover you in a blanket of warm fuzziness. Fall into the Arms of the Butcher, which is strangely enchanting. Be woken up sharply by the introduction to Without Song All Perish (lead single, but my least favourite track on the album). Try, try and try again. Don’t give up. You’re not beaten yet. Don’t give up. I know you can make it good.
So, if we remove Aaron Turner from the equation for just a moment, what do we have? Well, some classic Pharaoh Overlord, with fuzzy drones and electronic tones – psychedelia via a mangled mix of stoner and Krautrock, techno and industrial. Prying open space rock’s third eye, and final front ear, with kosmische musik and a healthy dollop of post rock and post metal. Kraftwerk and Hawkwind duelling with Isis and Skinny Puppy, in pursuit of an ‘80s synthwave pop hit. Pulsating, repetitive riffs and beats, that are far more explorative and interesting than you might expect. I can’t compliment Tomi Leppänen and Jussi Lehtisalo enough for the glorious soundscapes they create, and pound continuously until they’ve made a permanent imprint. The music needs no further ornamentation in my opinion, and this is possibly why I had such difficulties with the vocals initially.
But boy, do the vocals come into their own. Even without repeated listens, it becomes apparent by the end of 6, that the harsh and human voice of Turner can fit to the programmed automation of the metal machine musik of Leppänen and Lehtisalo. Tomorrow’s Sun works well, and Blue Light Hum blows everything that came before out of the water. It’s an enormous, triumphant near quarter hour epic, and the vocals inarguably match the music. Even if I hadn’t grown to love the remainder of the album, which I have, I would argue that 6 is worth purchasing for Blue Light Hum alone. This may well be the single greatest creation of Pharaoh Overlord. In fact, it was this track, more than anything else, that made me listen to the whole album again immediately. I still was unsure of the first half of the album on second listen, but the second hearing of Blue Light Hum blew me away again. Now it’s not uncommon for a song to be incredibly impressive when you first hear it, but it’s far rarer for it to evoke the same emotional response on subsequent listens. Blue Light Hum does just that. I’m glad, too, because 6’s cover art is easily one of my most favourite from 2020, so it would be a shame if the music didn’t live up to it. Rest assured, it does. It may just take some getting used to for some listeners. Don’t give up.
01. Path Eternal (6:34)
02. Arms of the Butcher (5:10)
03. Without Song All Will Perish (8:14)
04. Tomorrow’s Sun (6:13)
05. Blue Light Hum (13:59)
Total Time – 40:10
Tomi Leppänen – All Instrumentation
Jussi Lehtisalo – All Instrumentation
Aaron Turner – Vocals
Record Label: Rocket Recordings
Country of Origin: Finland
Date of Release: 27th November 2020