Damian Smith - Vocals Zack Bellina - Guitar & vocals Erik Labossiere - Guitar & vocals Donny Pinay - Bass & vocals
But, if you are willing to walk with me down a desolate prairie road on a frigid winter night, I will try to show you what Altars Of Grief made me see, made me feel as I gazed into that twisted wreck buried in a snowy ditch. The twisted wreck of the car driven by Iris’s intoxicated father, as he drove off heedless of the incoming blizzard, abandoning his terminally ill daughter in their isolated farm house. Frustrated by his inability to care for her. Alienated by their growing distance from one another, by her deep and newfound faith in a god to which he could not relate.
Do you see Iris’s father there in the wreckage, his mangled body wrapped around the steering column, features lacerated by shards of glass from the shattered windshield? Bloodied yet blue from the cold, seeking warmth beneath a blanket of drifting snow?
I can look no longer.
For all his sins, I pity the man. Without faith, there can be no heaven for the deceased. He is stuck in purgatory now, from where he can only watch, guilt-ridden and helpless, as his young daughter confronts her illness. Alone.
Over the course of its eight songs, Iris crafts a darkly spiritual tale inspired by the band’s rural prairie surroundings, where religion and struggles with both addiction and disease intersect. A story of endless remorse, and one that touches me profoundly—not only thematically and lyrically—but also in its execution. Concept albums, many of which lean toward the cerebral side, don’t always succeed in establishing a strong emotional connection between song and listener. Iris triumphs on both an emotional and an intellectual level, displaying a great deal of sophistication and maturity. For all the shortcomings that one might attribute to organized religion and religious faith, Altars Of Grief never stoop to the use of tired anti-Christian extreme metal tropes, nor do they preach.
For Altars Of Grief fans, the album is at once familiar and fresh. Familiar, because it builds on the band’s signature symphonic and choral arrangements, soaring harmonies, and dark folk influences combined with gothic doom and explosive death metal passages. Fresh, because of the addition of new dynamics, textures and layers in the songwriting, not least of which is the introduction of Raphael Weinroth-Browne’s subtly brooding cello to the mix. While desperation and sadness permeate Iris, glimmers of hope from the child of light pierce the the oppressive clouds from time to time, enhancing the emotional journey. The Weinroth-Browne closing instrumental, “Epilogue,” is a transcendental masterpiece worthy of a film soundtrack.
The vocals, with contributions from all members, remain as distinct and powerful as ever. Frontman Damian Smith alternates between clean singing and death growls in a manner that is both natural and appropriate given the structure of the album, never sounding contrived or “poppy” as the clean vocals from many metalcore bands do to my ears. That said, I find that the classic power metal-like vocals performed by I’m-not-sure-who near the end of “Becoming Intangible,” layered over Smith’s growls, totally break the mood for me. That uncharacteristic moment notwithstanding, the group as a whole remain master composers and performers, utilizing subtlety and restraint to great effect while clearly maintaining their focus on song and atmosphere over flashy displays of technical proficiency.
From the haunting cover illustration by Travis Smith (Opeth, Katatonia, Anathema), to the bleak poetry in the lyrics, to the mournful cello and the album’s intricate yet seamless and atmospheric arrangements, Iris is a work of art. Altars Of Grief haven’t only raised the bar for Canadian doom metal as other critics have suggested; they have set a high bar for any metal act to follow. Damian Smith has hinted that Iris might be the band’s final release before members go their separate ways. It better not be.
Final Rating: 9/10