The Porcelain Throne: Extol
It has been a little too long since the last Porcelain Throne, but saving the day is Stockhausen, here to give us a rundown on the fantastic Extol.
As a quick reminder, the Porcelain Throne is set up as a space for you, readers of the Toilet ov Hell (even though it has been mostly contributors thus far), to write about of some of your favorite bands. Check out The Official Porcelain Throne Guidelines and get at me with some new entries!
When I was a wee dead composer, I was first exposed to metal through Christian bands like Zao, Embodyment, and Living Sacrifice. At some point in middle school, I got a Solid State Records sampler that had a bunch of garbage cluttered around a bright, shining jewel of a song called “Ember” by some band called Extol. I remember I was cleaning my room when that song came on, and I stopped everything and just stared at my CD player. That single song seemed like a journey through a thousand different riffs and styles, and it was all so…different. I had never heard anything quite like it, and now, almost 15 years later, I still haven’t heard a band quite like Extol.
Many of you are familiar with Extol, but they seem to forever exist in the realm of the criminally underrated. They were formed in 1993 in Bekkestua, Norway, with the intention of bringing a progressive and creative edge to whatever sort of metal they were playing. I say “whatever sort of metal,” because no two Extol albums are the same. Throughout their career, they were known for changing their style drastically between releases, and absolutely mastering anything they tried. On Burial, their sound was marked by a merging of black, death, and elements of heavy metal, then blended with fresh, progressive ideas and a raw, thick production. The guitar work of Ole Børud and Christer Espevoll was immediately recognized as unique, featuring an endless array of technical, creative riffs and unconventional song structures. Similarly, David Husvik’s drumming featured musicality and nuance in addition to furious blast beats. At a time when much of the black and death metal genres focused on being as dark and brutal as possible, Extol seemed unconcerned with trends and simply wrote compelling, fresh music. They were constantly taking the risk of abandoning brutality to craft a forward-thinking product. “Renhetens Elv” is an excellent example of how difficult it can be to place them in a particular subgenre.
Burial received high praise from critics and fans alike, many calling it a breath of fresh air in the world of metal. They followed it shortly with the Mesmerized EP, featuring B-side material and remixes of select songs from Burial. Extol made multiple US appearances in support of the full-length, and re-entered the studio just a year after its release to record a follow-up album. Undeceived was released to immediate acclaim, and marked a distinct shift to a bolder death metal style. Peter Espevoll’s vocals still covered a wide range, but were primarily growled, and the songwriting took on a generally darker tone while retaining its unique virtuosity. The Undeceived sound became the signature style by which many knew Extol; the record is undeniably rooted in death metal, yet many riffs and sections didn’t fit any sort of mold. “Structure of Souls” has a melodic edge that many true death metallers wouldn’t dream of, but Extol pull it off without a second thought. The highly progressive, off-kilter nature of “Renewal” could be tagged with a dozen different genres, but Extol makes it seem perfectly natural. My favorite track from this album will always be the first Extol song I ever heard, “Ember.” I have no real idea what to say about the intro, it still makes me scratch my head well over a decade later. What follows is a magnificently structured song that turns corner after corner, while repeating key sections for an overall sense of cohesion.
Ole Børud, guitarist and primary songwriter, left the band shortly after the release of Undeceived. Tor Magne Glidje switched from bass to guitar to join Christer Espevoll, and John Robert Mjåland was recruited for bass. This lineup followed the full-length with the Paralysis EP, which showcased a distinct diversity in vocal styles from Peter Espevoll. The EP featured a cover by progressive thrash metal band Believer, an influence the band said would be more pronounced on their forthcoming full-length.
The new album, Synergy, marked the most notable change in their sound thus far. Ole Børud had rejoined the band, and the signature style he shared with Christer was focused into a highly intricate and progressive form of thrash. Likewise, Peter’s vocals completely abandoned any semblance of a death growl for an aggressive, harsh yelling style. It’s time for a little bit of honesty here, guys: this album took awhile to grow on me. The fault was more on my end; I was expecting a sequel to Undeceived, I had never really been into thrash, and the vocal shift was jarring. However, when I was finally able to put my expectations aside a couple years later and listen to the album for what it was, I was absolutely hooked. There is a common tendency to see modern thrash metal as stale, and while this album isn’t purely thrash, it is an excellently fresh take on ideas from the genre. The frenetic energy of “Thrash Synergy” was a serious hook for me.
The Blueprint Drives (2005)
In 2004, guitarists Ole Børud and Christer Espevoll left the band to pursue other interests. Tor Magne Glidje returned, and newcomer Ole Halvard Sveen filled out guitar responsibilities. Never content to repeat themselves, the new lineup altered their style drastically for The Blueprint Dives. The new album adopted strong rock influences, relying heavier on sung vocals and less on technical instrumentation. In true Extol fashion, the music remained compelling and fresh despite the distinctly different style. Memorable melodic lines mixed with progressive ideals, accented by moments of Synergy-like heaviness. Once again, listeners were required to set aside all expectations and take Blueprint on its own terms. Some long-time fans were lost along the way, but the album was more proof of Extol’s unique ability master their chosen style while putting their own stamp on it. The Blueprint Dives also earned Extol a nomination for the Norwegian Grammy award, the Spellemannprisen, for best metal album.
In 2007, Extol announced the band would be on an indefinite hiatus. The members disbanded into different pursuits, and I, Karlheinz Stockhausen, died later that year. Was it a coincidence that I decided to peace out after one of the best metal bands out there effectively broke up? Probably, but definitely not. I threw in the towel too early though, because in 2012, it was announced that a documentary on the history of Extol was in production, titled Extol: of Light and Shade. There was a teasing hint that it would be accompanied by new material, and it was eventually announced that there would be a new album released in 2013, Extol’s 20th anniversary. The reunited lineup of Peter Espevoll, Ole Børud, and David Husvik released Extol, the self-titled new album, and it was immediately hailed as a triumphant return. The band stated that it would be somewhat of a return to their heavier roots while combining all aspects of their history, a goal that is clearly met. The band’s legacy is clearly evident in Extol: the big, open, simplicity and melodicism of “Open the Gates” recalls aspects of Blueprint, the jagged, thrashy riffing in “Betrayal” channels Synergy, the spacey soloing in “Ministers” hearkens back to the atmosphere of Burial, and the overall vocal style and heaviness is unmistakably Undeceived. My sky-high expectations for the album’s release (I apparently never learned to abandon expectations with Extol) were completely exceeded, and it remains in constant rotation for me.
The band has stated that they won’t be doing extensive live performances, and they have been fairly silent since the album was released. However, the documentary can now be preordered for the release in April, and there’s a special deluxe bundle for dead composer fanboys like me. So while the future may be uncertain again, we were given another fantastic album and will have a big, immerse look into the history of Extol with the documentary.
The band has never backed away from their Christian faith, and has received backlash from both the metal community (for being “untrve”) and the Christian community (for being headbanging devil worshipers, obviously). Many bands in similar situations have gradually toned down their Christian themed lyrics or played down their profession of faith, but Extol has always been resolute in their expressions of belief. Similarly, they have always been resolute in writing quality music that demands to be taken on its own merits, free from expectations and prejudice. If quality and variety are things about which you would say, “those are good things,” then it’s about time for you to sit down with Extol.