Arc of Ascent: Realms of the Metaphysical

AoA1I’m sure I wasn’t the only one who breathed a sigh of relief when Hamilton, New Zealand trio Arc of Ascent announced the release of their new album, Realms of the Metaphysical. It’s been five years since the heavyweight three-piece’s last release, and with the band’s status uncertain for a spell, and a long stretch between live shows, it felt, for a time, like Arc of Ascent might be heading towards the great beyond.

Obviously, noteworthy bands meet their end all the time, and it’s not as if New Zealand is short on doom, sludge, psychedelic, or weed-fuelled bands. But Arc of Ascent are the homegrown group that most vividly evoke the holiest of stoner metal scriptures: “Drop out of life with bong in hand. Follow the smoke toward the riff filled land.”  

Arc of Ascent formed in 2008, and they’ve been led by multi-instrumentalist, vocalist, and songwriter Craig Williamson ever since. The band mix hallucinogenic rock with interstellar doom while exploring celestial and spiritual spheres, and that marriage of the cosmic and mystic is a hallmark of Williamson’s creative oeuvre.

His pre-Arc of Ascent trio, Datura, mined a similar aesthetic, and his (highly recommended) acid folk / space rock solo project, Lamp of the Universe, deals in outer and inner space voyages as well. However, it’s Arc of Ascent who have explored the astronomical and transcendental realms with the most mind-melting heaviness.

The band’s been aptly described as the love child of Spacemen 3 and Black Sabbath, and Arc of Ascent’s full-length debut, 2010’s Circle of the Sun, blended sitar, tanpura, and expressive Eastern influences on tripped-and-tranced-out tunes. The follow-up album, 2012’s The Higher Key, was more stripped down and burly, but it also featured a heady mix of weedian adventures and dramatic jaunts into the far reaches.

AoA3Of course, there have been significant changes in Arc of Ascent’s line-up since The Higher Key’s release. Drummer John Strange and guitarist Sandy Schaare, who both played on that album, have left the band. And there’s no question that their musical chemistry with Williamson felt like a key component in The Higher Key’s creative success, and made for some jaw-dropping live shows.

(Note: Schaare has a new band, Wolf Wizard, who sound like they’ve got some storming stoner metal in the works.)

Thankfully, Williamson has a steady hand on the tiller here, and those line-up changes haven’t upset Realms of the Metaphysical’s equilibrium. With drummer Mark McGeady on board, and original guitarist Matt Cole-Baker returning to the fold, the band’s new album finds a great balance between Circle of the Sun and The Higher Key.

In fact, Realms of the Metaphysical delivers exactly what fans have been waiting for. Arc of Ascent’s lyrical shamanism and hard-edged rhythmic cadence (a definite hook for fans of OM, Sleep, or Bong) are all there, front and centre, on album opener “Set the Planets Free”. The band’s propulsive psychedelia is as thickset and intoxicating as ever on “Eyes of the Sages” as well. And with chanted vocals and driving bass interlocking with gritty riffs, thumping percussion, and brain-liquefying solos throughout the album, Arc of Ascent’s strengths as a rip-roaring power trio are in full effect –– once again.

Mesmeric momentum drives “Hexagram” and “In the Light”, and the snarling riffs and entrancing tempos on those songs link the skies above with the earth below and mix the blissful with the bludgeoning. The thick basslines on “Benediction Moon” provide more crucial low-end pummel for electrifying, ritualistic riffs to be woven around. And sitar opens the album’s final track, “Temple Stone”, before the neuron-sizzling doom builds towards gargantuan cathartic release.

AoA4Realms of the Metaphysical sounds great too. The album’s got plenty of dynamic physicality and all the tonal magnitude required. But, more importantly, it thrums with that transfixing, almost subliminal energy that’s underscored Arc of Ascent’s appeal since day one.  

Faults? Well, if lysergic, third-eye-opening doom sounds a little too tie-dyed or tassel-fringed for your liking, then sure, avoid Realms of the Metaphysical. There’s plenty more-evil-than-evil doom out there for you to enjoy.

The album’s cyclical riffs and refrains do have a heavy hippie vibe, and Realms of the Metaphysical is unapologetically mystical. Some might find Williamson’s lyrics to be an impenetrable esoteric puzzle, and his singing style isn’t as operatic as more theatrical doom vocalists either.

However, every one of those elements plays a crucial role in Arc of Ascent sounding as if they’re channelling the eternal. Certainly, Realms of the Metaphysical sounds profound and feels limitless –– and it’s replete with the symbiotic to-and-fro that Arc of Ascent’s music brings.

The album has a mesmerizing weight and meditative pace that fosters a heartfelt connection; and Arc of Ascent cut deep, hypnotic grooves with overdriven stoner rock, primal psych, and crushing raga-doom.

Realms of the Metaphysical reaches back in time and up to the heavens, all while exploring what lies deep within. No question, Arc of Ascent operate on a whole other plane of existence. It’s damn good to have the riff wizards back.