Since their creation France’s Decline of the I have sought to push the boundaries of black metal outwards while exploring elements of the psyche. Over three albums founder A.K. explored the experiments neurobiologist Henri Laborit did on rats, bringing an avant-garde and sometimes insane sounding take on black metal. With that trilogy wrapped up, A.K. has assembled a new lineup and now is tackling a new one that explores elements of Danish philosopher/theologian Søren Kierkegaard’s works. Johannes, the first in this new series, marks a departure from the more aggressive approach Decline of the I had become known for, instead focusing on atmosphere while still delving into the unstable nature of the psyche.
What proved to be interesting throughout the initial trilogy was that A.K.’s writing seemed to get more focused as it progressed without losing the experimentation. Some of the more avant-garde and fluid elements were likely on purpose to tie into the themes of the project, but there were definitely some jarring transitions and musical elements that limited some of the listening mileage. Johannes is a very different beast, as while it still has passages where the guitar and bass completely open up into a torrent of abrasive and twisted blasting, the songwriting has a more direct flow that weaves a more consistent narrative. The atmosphere here is a mix of existential crisis as the melodies expand outwards slowly like someone in the middle of a brain fog and barely controlled chaos as everything starts to explode around you. Decline of the I hasn’t lost their experimental/avant-garde elements but they come in the form of smaller details, such as the music box sounding part on “Act of Faith” or the way the piano seems to pop out of the recording in a horror move like fashion. But where some of these flourishes overstayed their welcome before that isn’t the case here, and as a result the darkness and dread keep you in a hypnotic state without distractions that pull you out of the experience. The slow methodical tempos give off a bit more of a doom vibe at times, though the tonality and atmosphere keep things rooted firmly in black metal.
The instrumentals may feel a bit calmer overall compared to Decline of the I’s previous material, but the vocals are just as out there and unpredictable as before. Initially you get the type of raspy, abrasive screams that aren’t unusual for French black metal, but the further into Johannes you get the more twisted the performances become as there is male and female choral singing, distorted screaming that sounds genuinely inhuman, and a variety of spoken word passages. The end of “The Veil of Splendid Lies” even has some singing that sounds like it’s coming directly from a madman, channeling a bit more of the stranger and mind-altering side that the band showcased previously. As with the instrumentation, there are a lot of layers to peel back to the vocal performance but those who take the time will find that this makes the material stick with them.
Johannes showcases a new side of Decline of the I that spends more time building a thick, hypnotic atmosphere while still retaining elements of madness and dread. The experimental elements aren’t nearly as jarring before and integrate well with the flow of the songs as a whole, and where individual bits stood out more before this time around the material had me in its grasp from beginning to end. This type of methodical black metal may not be everyone’s cup of tea, but if you’re ready to dive into something that’ll get inside your head a bit this is a must listen. Johannes is available from Agonia Records.
-Review by Chris Dahlberg
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