The internet age has pretty much annihilated the notion of mystery in rock 'n' roll, but it's always pleasing to note that a handful of fearless folk are still prepared to take the enigmatic plunge. SERMON arrive with little fanfare and virtually no information, beyond the fact that current VADER and DECAPITATED drummer James Stewart is on hitting-things duty. With its austere, quasi-religious artwork and overriding sense of reverb-drenched grandeur, one might expect terribly clever, anti-religious undertones to seep through cracks in that pious façade, up-ending the whole experience with malevolent glee. Instead, this is all played entirely deadpan and stoically non-committal: this is an album that aims to provide a religious experience, in whatever form that might take.
Musically speaking, these songs strike a sublime balance between the soaring but troubled dark rock of ANATHEMA and KATATONIA and the clattering, agile percussive thrust of more technical and gritty progressive metal. Opener "The Descend" is a succinct overture, four minutes of lurching riffs, stuttering anguish and deft tempo shifts, with a generous helping of mellotron adding psychedelic sparkle. "Festival" begins like psych-droners OM, a monotone entreaty across a hypnotic pulse, before spiraling away at a breathless pace, all muted hooks and rolling crescendos.
The album's two epic moments, "The Drift" and closer, "The Rise of Desiderata", are where SERMON really consolidate the unique sense of otherness that informs this project. Superficially, this is grandiloquent prog metal, full of OPETH-like flair and graced with elegant melodies that tug at the heart. Dig deeper, however, and there are numerous nods to kaleidoscopic post-rock and, thanks to those mellotrons, late '60s psychedelia. It's a sumptuous mix of the familiar and the alien, all welded to songs that grow in stature with every repeated listen.
The multi-instrumentalist behind the whole thing, known only as "Him," belies his veiled identity with a genuinely affecting and raw vocal performance throughout. The meaning behind the likes of "Contrition" and "Chasm" may be obscured, but the genuine emotion behind these songs is palpable. Whether crooning with real conviction or channeling demons with an icy bark, his voice is the only tangible connection to the real world here: everything else floats in an irresistible fog of vexed spirituality and ever-evolving ideas. And while this does sound like an act of spiritual detox for "Him," it is also one of the most uplifting metal records you will hear this year. If that counts as a religious experience, count me in.