That this album exists at all is testament to the force of nature that is Årabrot vocalist Kjetil Nernes. His diagnosis with throat cancer in 2014 would have been enough to force most bands to pull out of any commitments. He received the news, and went ahead with a UK tour.
Following the tour, he underwent treatment and was told that his voice may have suffered as a result. Despite being told that his recuperation may take between six months and a year, within six weeks he was back with the band and rehearsing. Nernes’ determination to push on resulted in the I Modi EP which was released in October 2014.
As if that weren’t enough, Årabrot quickly set about working on The Gospel, their seventh album in 13 years. Considering the circumstances of the last few years, it is unsurprising to learn that the theme that runs throughout the album is one of war against oneself, and the plotting of the journey to hell and back. This time around Nernes is focussed on pushing the band’s sonic palette and in doing so he’s pulled in gothic pop influences, hints of old music hall, a dash of classical and choral touches that hark back to the pastoral symphonies of Elgar and Vaughan Williams and thrown in a little no-wave and post-punk for good measure. When it all comes together (and the hit rate is consistently high) Årabrot are phenomenally effective.
The centrepiece of the album comes in the shape of the 10 minute epic of Faustus. All too often these days, performers speak of “the journey” they’ve been on, but it rarely rings true. Yet, with Faustus, the band has created a detailed and emotional piece that goes some way to explaining the emotions of the last few years. There’s a classical introduction cut short by an explosion, which leads into a slow riff and Nernes, stating his position at the heart of the funeral pyre as that Melvins-esque chug gets swallowed up by air-raid sirens.
This is an album that declares war on cancer, and revels in winning the battle. Ah Feel makes no bones about how hard the fight was. With its aggressive stabbing guitar attack and screamed chorus from Kvelertak’s Erlend Hjelvik, there’s no punches held back here. As Nernes details his illness and treatment in his lyrics “I smell it up the nose, where the sickness is” and a little self-doubt creeps in with the line “I’m bound for the grave”, which seems almost surprising given his drive to keep on track despite it all.
And The Whore Is This City follows and sees the band exploring post-punk with Nernes occupying the space between Tom Verlaine and a swivel-eyed David Byrne with considerable aplomb. Given that this is an album is essentially one man’s war against cancer, it is surprisingly accessible. Tall Man’s goth thrum might thunder with low slung guitars, militaristic drum patterns, and guttural roars, but there’s an beautiful elegance to be found in the keyboard motifs and the chorus. Even the discordant guitar solo can’t quite throw off the sense of grandeur at the heart of the song – and the stabbed bass pattern and the final face-off between Nernes and (what is presumably) his cancer (I want her dead) of closing track Rebekka (Tragodie) manages to throw a little glam rock into the equation.
Certainly there are moments where the bleakness takes over (the unremitting thunder of Darkest Day or the creepy Am Rep scree of I Run for example) but for the most part, this is an album awash in positivity. Those familiar with the older Årabrot will find much to admire here, and this is far from a crossover album, but in terms of scope both sonically, lyrically and artistically, it’s perhaps the defining moment of the band so far.