Organized religion and metal music are rarely considered compatible (just look at how Middle America and the media commonly dismiss the genre as ubiquitously damaging, if not downright satanic). Of course, that’s a gross generalization, as there are countless groups that prove otherwise. Take, for example, Chicago troupe Panegyrist, who, on its debut LP, Hierurgy, crafts a “collection of mediations [on] the theme of theosis, the process whereby the individual is transformed and united with God through the operations of the divine energies.” Infusing their robust black metal core with histrionic lead vocals and divine overtones to achieve an “avant-garde” and “esoteric” style, the band announces itself with as much cryptic innovation as a traditional appeal, yielding quite an interesting—if mildly repetitious—introductory sequence.
Considering that the names of both the band and the album relate to the public elicitation of holy ideals, it’s not surprising that vocalist/lyricist Elijah Tamu surmises Hierurgy as dissecting “a higher individuation that occurs in relation to the Divine Other, across the ontological abyss. . . . the living relation between the individual and God is precisely the higher unity that is made possible by the distinction. Existence itself is prayer.” In that way, Panegyrist sees each of the record’s six tracks as focused “on a particular aspect of theosis” that “[is] drawn from prayers and mediations grounded in personal agonies and triumphs.” While the dogmatic impact of these musings will clearly vary, even the most secular listener—like myself—will at least find the end result very engrossing, bold, and creative.
The LP bares its warm spiritual elements from the start; the brief “Hymn of Inversion” beginning as a Gregorian chant. Soon after, Tamu’s falsetto dirges (“Phosphorus ascendant / Riseth the morning star / From riven belly of harrowed Leviathan”) are complemented by tender piano chords and scattered backing outcries. It’s a beautiful and comforting combination that alludes to similarly welcoming subsequent moments. Take the soft singing, sparse guitar arpeggios, classical piano work, and delicate percussion of “The Void is the Heart of the Flame” and/or “Hierurgy.” For sure, there are some really inviting moments here.
Of course, those bright spots wouldn’t be as significant without all of the dark counterparts Panegyrist provides. In particular, “Idylls of the Cave” clashes operatic and devilish dual vocals at the forefront of a blistering arrangement that recalls icons like Enslaved and Immortal. Likewise, “To Quicken Stone” succeeds due to its hypnotic riffs and epic vibe, whereas “Ophidian Crucifix” incorporates a relatively vibrant and expansive palette to channel the alternative/jazzy penchants of later Cynic amidst its bleak base. In that sense, the hellish nature of Hierurgy—which, admittedly, can be a bit too unvaried and monotonous at times—often dominates its heavenly deviations.
Panegyrist makes a very sturdy impression with Hierurgy. By fusing such seemingly divergent elements so well, the quintet reveals a true appreciation for and mastery of multifaceted stimuli. The record is as much Agalloch and early Anathema as it is The Autumn Chorus and, well, modern Anathema, juxtaposing viciousness and loveliness in an almost ceaselessly gripping, daring, and resourceful way. If you’re open to guttural foundations with luminous shades of spirituality, Hierurgy should definitely be on your radar.