Space-rockers Hawkwind don’t get enough credit for helping to imbue the psychedelic spectrum of metal with a distinct accent. Lyrics from the band’s ’74 release, Hall of the Mountain Grill, (“We’re astral-planing, floating free / On our continuum frequency / Spacing out, we’re spacing in …”) underscore the mantra of mind-bending metal to this day. That same searching tenor is evident throughout The Higher Key, the sophomore release from Arc of Ascent, a three-piece from Hamilton, New Zealand. However, thematic links to the celestial and unfathomable are not the only aspect accentuating The Higher Key‘s mystical feel. The album’s monolithic doom and stoner riffs, and electrifying solos are swathed in polychromatic Eastern timbres. For seekers of cosmic and/or resin-fuelled truths, the hard rockin’ punch of the band’s material compresses the distance between the firmamental, the metaphysical, and the self—securing the album’s intimate and hypnotic resonance.
Arc of Ascent’s 2010 debut, Circle of the Sun, was widely acclaimed, serving as a consciousness-expanding launch pad for fans. Vocalist, multi-instrumentalist and chief songwriter Craig Williamson was already familiar with psychoactive ventures via his Lamp of the Universe project (see ’09’s Acid**Mantra) and previous psych metal outfit Datura. Circle of the Sun was a majestic debut, and The Higher Key‘s six-tracks further illuminate the ascendant pathways mapped out by the band’s first release. Weightier production, more confident songwriting, and fittingly cryptic lyrics mean The Higher Key traverses hallucinogenic and ritualized terrain with big, bold and heavy reverberations.
Arc of Ascent’s bristly metal buffets the corporeal to aid the appreciation of the otherworldly, in much the same way as Sleep, Bong or OM’s transcendent suites so ably do. As with any ceremonial endeavor, the band gets off to an entrancing start. On “Celestial Altar” Williamson intones the beauty of Sol (“Receive sun-born ascension / Enshrining one”) as guitarist Sandy Schaare and drummer John Strange craft a sonic chalice around his homily.
What is immediately apparent is just how far the band have traveled in the last two years. Williamson’s voice sounds stronger and he capitalizes on the mesmeric draw of chanted vocals, intensifying the enigmatic allure of his lyrics. However, aside from Williamson’s shamanistic clout (and his crucial bass pulse), Schaare’s soaring riffs and solos sculpt psychedelic panoramas, and Strange’s percussion adds the essential, eternal groove.
The core dynamic of a power-trio is exploited in all its glory throughout* The Higher Key,* with all three musicians working in harmony to construct multihued eulogies. The magnetism of “Search for Liberation” is set around Schaare’s driving guitar work, which drones out on a wonderfully feedbacking hum. However, it would have far less impact without Strange’s drumming, which grounds the track’s trance-like impetus. The band work together with stentorian yet nuanced vitality throughout The Higher Key to underpin its transcendental nature. There is a strong sense of each artist being aligned in the realization of the overall quest. The interplay between Williamson, Schaare and Strange is finely tuned, each supporting one another to fortify *The Higher Key’*s pilgrimaging spirit.
No one is getting lost along the way. No matter how skyrocketing the guitar becomes, Strange is there to refocus the head-down propulsive momentum; no matter how obscurely spiritual Williamson’s vocals become, Schaare is there to direct the cadence and bolster the aesthetic. The band’s adept symmetry ensures the gargantuan riffs encircling “Land of Tides” do not diminish its mesmeric potential—nor do the band allow the behemothic doom of “Redemption” to overwhelm its recherché spirit. The constant tension between colossal metal and the album’s more divine predilections keeps it utterly engrossing. Where often albums built around a journeying concept wander off on ultimately dead-end trails, *The Higher Key *never looses sight of the route. Sure, there’s plenty of colorful pit stops along the way, but the band never strays from the course.
Arc of Ascent save their best space/doom quest for the last, with final track, “Through the Rays of Infinity” being 10 minutes of progged-out, psychotropic wondrousness. With a vast array of textures and shapes, spiraling atmospherics fuse acid-drenched psych with driving doom as the song hurtles towards the zenith of a star’s collapse. The song burns out on a beautifully flaming tail of radiant space-dust and memory—the tantalizing prospect that Arc of Ascent has a Dopesmoker-sized epic in them starts right here.
The Higher Key is quite simply one of the finest metal albums to be released from these shores. Whether it’s Strange offering adroit fills, Williamson setting a tantric meter, or Schaare layering on the variegated shades, each artist adds his own carefully measured alchemical dose to The Higher Key. Although the album is laden with spliff-friendly tones, there’s nothing soporific about it. Arc of Ascent clearly recognize that if you’re traveling meditative metal trails, it’s best you make the accompanying landscape as exotic as possible. By ensuring the excursion is filled with both crushing and ethereal monuments to gaze upon, Arc of Ascent offer the means of admission**to other realms; it’s up to you to decide whether you’re ready to open the door to the boundless.