Label: Profound Lore Records
It’s not often I feel intimidated when writing about an album – in fact, it’s happened only a handful of times out of all the reviews I’ve had published. But putting down my thoughts on the new album from SubRosa, For This We Fought The Battle Of Ages, genuinely feels like a mammoth undertaking. There’s several reasons for this. To start with, it’s the follow-up to not just one of my favourite albums of the past few years, but one of my favourite albums completely. More Constant Than The Gods still astounds me to this day, so the expectations for For This We Fought… are high to begin with. Then, there’s the context of the album itself, being based as it is upon the novel We, a seminal work of dystopian fiction. But what truly makes writing about For This We Fought… such a daunting task is a problem I imagine most writers have grappled with at some point in their lives: how to adequately convey the emotions it arises, the impact it has, how god-damn good the album is. As this might imply, For This We Fought… doesn’t just meet expectations; it surpasses them, to the extent that it makes an album as near-perfect as More Constant Than The Gods seem like a warm-up for the main act.
Not that this was apparent on initial listens. On early listens, For This We Fought… felt difficult, not quite as easy to grasp as previous releases. The tone is much darker, far more ominous, with a constant anxiety that verges upon the paranoid underpinning the band’s colossal doom metal. There is less overt beauty than previously, with the twin violins weaving dark threads and painting ominous atmospheres more often than not, whilst the riffs are often titanic, lumbering behemoths; heavy as a mountain and with an almost physical force. Added to this is a greater sense of desperation in the vocals, with a barely suppressed primal panic evident as early on as second track “Wound Of The Warden”. There is no early catharsis or release, as was offered on More Constant Than The Gods opener “The Usher”. Even moments that are not so musically heavy carry a dark shadow, as during the opening of “Black Majesty”, the scene it paints all the more ominous for being done so via sweet, melodic solo vocals. When the music comes crashing in, it feels all the more forceful for what has come before.
And yet, this only tells part of the story of For This We Fought…; there is still beauty here, and hope, but it is hidden far deeper than previously. Over time and with repeated listens, the nature of the riffs subtly changes, so that cracks of light now seep through what previously felt like suffocating darkness. That these feelings do not come easy is fitting, given the inspiration for the album, and there is often the feeling that they are mere moments from being overcome by something darker and more oppressive. It makes moments when the light triumphs, however briefly, all the more delightful.
This may give the impression that For This We Fought… is an album which requires utmost attention, and is as intellectually demanding as it is musically heavy. Whilst I certainly feel that the album is most rewarding when engaged with in this sense, it’s perfectly possible to enjoy the record on its musical merits alone – after all, all the literary inspirations and desired emotional impact counts for nothing if the music itself is not up to par. In this sense, SubRosa prove themselves to be one of the most exemplary doom bands of our time. For This We Fought… demonstrates a band all pulling together, with all instruments and members complimenting one another in service to song and album. The power and force of the riffs, the way the violins enhance the atmosphere, the way the songs move and shift so naturally, as if they were living things – none of this is by accident. These are elements that may take several listens to fully appreciate, but subtly speak of a band at the height of their powers.
What causes For This We Fought… to strike me so deeply, though, is the feeling that – for all the darkness, all the despair, for every moment of anxiety and dread and misery – this is an album that is, fundamentally, about the better side of humanity. A dystopian novel may seem strange inspiration for expressing this, but it is only by examining what such societies cause us to lose that we realise the real value of what we have that could otherwise be taken for granted. It’s in this context that what, in the hands of other bands, could be throw-away lines (such as at the end of “Black Majesty”) become quietly heart-breaking.
It all reaches its apex with closer “Troubled Cells”, a song where dytopian fiction and modern politics overlap. Based upon guitarist/vocalist Rebecca Vernon’s support of LGBTQI rights and her Mormon faith, it tackles a very real issue of discrimination with sympathy and strength, whilst also tying it in with the overall themes and feel of the album. A rejection of privilege if it means others must go without, it is a stunningly beautiful, compassionate, cathartic song from a band who specialise in such music. It all serves to underline what is, deep down, at the heart of SubRosa’s music. For all the darkness their songs often contain, these are, ultimately, songs about love, and compassion, and togetherness, and what is lost – personally, politically, spiritually – when we let differences overshadow all that we have in common. The later half of the song, when it begins to soar and the vocals come to the fore, is absolutely spine-tingling, and one of the most moving things I have heard in years. The lyrics (“There is no greater good / If you’re trodden underfoot”; “Paradise is a lie / If we have to burn you at the stake to get inside”) are some of the most eloquent and inspiring that doom has ever produced; a rejection of fascism, hate, and discrimination in all forms, urging unity and love. To say that the effect is life-affirming is, frankly, an understatement.
I’m aware that this review may describe For This We Fought…, and SubRosa in general, in superlative terms. I offer no apology for this. No album has had such an emotional effect on me since I left my teens; not even More Constant Than The Gods. And no band has impressed and moved me more in years than SubRosa, both musically and with the feeling of what they are trying to do with their music – and I mean that in both artistic and in broader terms, too. That For This We Fought… has a subtle political feel to it at points is to its great credit, constructed and performed as it is with such care. This is an album for the heart, head, and soul, and isn’t just one of the best releases of the year, but marks a high-point for modern doom metal in general.
For This We Fought The Battle Of Ages can be streamed, downloaded, purchased on CD, and ordered on vinyl via Bandcamp.