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Review: Rot in Hell, A Thick Rope and a Strong Branch (Neuropa, 2017)

Released by Neuropa Records nearly a year ago, Rot in Hell's latest full-length has apparently been—in the words of the band—"universally ignored," and I'm not sure why. Having made their first (to my recollection) foray nearer the realms of "apocalyptic folk" or "neo-folk" (or however you'd care to tag said genre) around 10 years ago with "Now, Today, Tomorrow, and Always," the group's inaugural full-length exploration of such styles—excluding the 2015 live album, Of Sorrow Black and Deep, which we'll get to later—should come as little surprise, as this aspect of Rot in Hell's creative output has been a fairly common occurrence since 2011. I, too, had been inexplicably guilty of looking right past it, though. The disc had been on my radar, but for whatever reason I embarrassingly failed to pursue it until a few weeks ago!?

Comprised of 10 songs in about 37 minutes, the material is comparable to—and would honestly hold its own alongside—some of the more obvious and well-known standard-bearers of this niche. It would be a touch lazy, however, to merely classify A Thick Rope and a Strong Branch as such. The vocals are less polarizingly dramatic, for one thing; the lyrics comparatively disguised though more intriguing in subject matter—not to mention that slight musical extensions are also clearly present…

Opener "Jewel in the Lotus" is a synth-based, orchestral type of piece—blatantly melodic yet slightly more droning and ambient than, say, the average horror film score, perhaps. The album truly kicks in, then, with "Concupiscence & Perversion": a fitting lead-in for even the unjustifiably trepidatious listener, as—despite its acoustic nature—it lands with a rather heavy, hard-hitting plod, complete with dense bass and percussion. The singing has obviously grown to be much more comfortable and confident, and the acoustics are even joined at one point by distorted chords and distant, wind-blown screams of anguish. There's damn near a Neurosis-ness to it, I'd say.

"Icon of the Tsetse Fly" finds loose acoustic strumming accompanied by windchimes and a nice piano melody, as well as flecks of bass and percussion; while "Brown Scapular" is almost "catchy" in arrangement. Acoustic guitar and flute with occasional vibraslap support one of the more emotive singing performances herein, coupled with some seething whispers that cascade amidst the mix. "Bacchanal" utilizes dryer and more stripped down acoustic guitar to start; later building in with some piano, percussion, and a quick electric solo toward the end that has a reversed volume swell feel to it. Another fairly simple, repetitive song structure that's once more quite strong for what it is.

"Turn This World Inside Out" is largely centered around a keyboard melody and shaken percussion instruments ahead of faint strings (the bass is actually more prominent than the guitars) and cymbals, as assorted layered voices repeat the song's title throughout. Glitchy electronic textures lead into another distorted chord progression mixed into the background during its final minute. A seeming ode to mass ritual suicide, "Love Lays Us to Rest" shifts toward an excellent Spaghetti Western vibe (at least to my inexperienced ears), and boasts another of the more moving vocal performances. A personal favorite of mine, indeed.

Acoustic guitar, distant piano, simplistic percussion, and droningly delayed singing make up "A Thick Rope, A Strong Branch," with another electric appearance near the end (plus a hard-to-decipher sample)—joining in to harmonize with some of the keyboards. "Jera Marches" then offers a little bit of everything displayed prior—its memorable melody, hypnotic aesthetic, and subtle reference to the word "process" as "4P" in the lyrics marking another standout composition. "Threshold of the Qliphoth" finally acts as a comparable synth-based outro to "Jewel in the Lotus," though more abstract and cosmic in tone.

Housed in a six-panel digipak with artwork by Give Up, the packaging contains lyrics for the core album, but few credits. The material was recorded in 2015 at The Mutiny Compound and sounds quite beautiful, but I'm unsure as to specific personnel or instrumentation.

Included as a bonus disc is the eight-song, 40-minute Of Sorrow Black and Deep—previously only available on cassette. Recorded live in the U.K. in November of 2014, this outing contains three tracks that would eventually be re-recorded for A Thick Rope and a Strong Branch; plus cuts from the splits with Psywarfare and Horders, as well as a cover of "Aria of the Devil," originally by Theatre of Hate. This, too, is superbly recorded. Slightly rawer than the studio fare, of course, but were it not for the distant applause between tracks, you'd not necessarily assume that the recordings were captured live.

I'd prefer to believe that Rot in Hell's audience would be accepting of experimental diversity, but perhaps a narrow-minded contingent of hardcore fans has factored into the lack of exposure surrounding A Thick Rope and a Strong Branch? Who knows? I'm far from a "neo-folk" know-it-all, but even with my limited exposure to the genre, it's painfully obvious that this is a truly high-quality release tendered with grave earnestness. Despite my superfluous babbling, the music should—as always—speak for itself…

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