Almagest is the long-awaited debut full-length album from the Melbourne-based progressive extreme metal outfit, Hybrid Nightmares. This quintet has had a history of delving into worlds of science-fiction blended with elements of cosmic horror and Kubrick-esque discovery (the band’s signature totem, the ‘Obelisk’, has influences in Stanley Kubrick’s science-fiction masterpiece, 2001: A Space Odyssey with the equally mysterious monoliths). Matched by a black metal identity with progressive and high-concept layers, the bands’ full-length effort tells of the journey of the Pilgrim as he ventures across the nine circles to uncover the Prime Mover.
The notion of the Prime Mover is one which ties directly into the album’s title and its concept. The word ‘almagest’ derives from the work of the second-century Alexandrian astronomer and philosopher, Claudius Ptolemy, who wrote the important astrological treatise, Mathematike Syntaxis or The Mathematical Compilation. Soon earning the name of The Greatest Compilation, it discussed the motion of the planets and the stars along with establishing a geocentric model of the universe, a schema that would fill the scientific consciousness and its teachings for the next thousand years. Eventually adopted in Islamic communities, the title of the piece was shortened to ‘The Greatest’ and soon transliterated from Arabic into Latin, where it became Almagest.
While the album itself is rooted heavily in a combination of science-fiction and real-world astrological and mathematical studies, Almagest is very much an original creative work from the band and one which both succeeds in its intrigue and overall production value. As the album’s opener, “Terra”, introduces us to the journey that lies ahead, we are told from the Pilgrim’s perspective of how the Earth has crumbled and has died; its beauty fading away to forgotten memories:
Though the Earth is cold and bare,
Memories buried and mistaken
Though I wish to slumber deep,
The master calls, I must awaken
Absolute credit must be given to the songwriting here: not only in the brilliantly constructed lyrics that weave an epic tale of loss, devastation, and hope, but also from just how far the band has progressed musically. As the band exclaims boldly later on in the song, “Jupiter”:
I give myself to the music of the stars!
An apt statement in more ways than one.
As evidenced by the tracklist, Almagest traces the journey of the Pilgrim across our fragile and overburdened solar system. However, it’s in the moments of introspection where the story behind Almagest truly shines. As the bombast quiets to a soft, harmonious pitch, we are drawn in once more by the vocals of Lachlan “Loki” Robson, here utilising for the first time cleans as he, in the guise of the Pilgrim, narrates the character’s cosmic trek. In the lyrics of the second track, “Luna”, it’s made known the sights the Pilgrim witnesses, and the mission laid out before him:
All is quiet at the shore of the astral sea,
The lights uncounted glowing, all around they sing to me
Though the heavens sprawl before me,
Infinite, glittering, vast
I cast my gaze earthward toward my simple past
What could be there for me now?
Juxtaposed by soulful guitars and atmospheric drum movements, the ambience and mood these tracks build is inspired to say the least. Coupled with how seamlessly the tracks transition between slow-crawling, atmosphere-driven passages to moments of abrasive, musical extremes are incredible. This is an element of Hybrid Nightmares’ music the band has continued to build upon and refine since their inception in 2014, and especially since the release of their phenomenal epic, The Ages, in 2015; an extreme metal masterpiece that’s concept is carried across four separate EP’s.
The use of the term ‘extreme metal’ is used appropriately in this instance. Where Hybrid Nightmares could once have been filed correctly under the black metal label, the musical choices of the band have since become quite removed from this and have evolved beyond merely this tag. To label them as anything other than the umbrella term of extreme metal would be a futile effort. With the strong use of acoustic guitars, slowed moments of narrative exposition, and seamless shifts between atmospheric, harsh, and melodic, there is now a significant progressive identity in their music as well. While this was noticeable before, it’s more front and centre here than ever in the past. This is especially true with the song “Sol”, which via its unusual time signatures and unexpected vocal transitions sees the harsh vocals take a backseat to clean, choral singing. This was a surprising touch to a Hybrid Nightmares song, but one which works remarkably well and feels incredibly appropriate to the content within the developing narrative.
“Sol” also holds claim to bringing together one of the key story elements of the record (both to the album’s concept and the use of the Almagest treatise), which is to say, that the earth is held to be at the centre of the universe in this narrative. This is the reason as to why “Sol” isn’t the first track on the album, but rather “Terra” is.
Though at first glance, the idea of yet another black metal band utilising the figure of Lucifer in their music could be viewed as clichéd – à la “Lucifer-Vesper” – as with bands such as Behemoth, Hybrid Nightmares have approached the ever-popular choice of the Morningstar with an air of originality and depth to it that is quite sobering. Interpreting Lucifer as a great cosmic horror among the stars (driven by his inherent will to manipulate and corrupt), his presence in the story doesn’t feel at all forced. Instead, it segues the Pilgrim’s journey similarly to the wolf that stalks Little Red Riding Hood as he meets her along her trip through the woods to her grandmother’s house. Lucifer makes his presence known, slithering amongst the stars as a snake and having his shadowy presence felt henceforth without being shoved down your throat. From the name, the song discusses the cycle of the burgeoning morning (i.e. Lucifer) with Vesper, the evening; and then to the darkness and light that floods the cosmos between those two units of time.
What’s interesting with Almagest is that, across the ten tracks, the notion of the Prime Mover is kept deliberately abstract. The esoteric nature of this entity helps to establish that air of mystery and wonder that is needed for science-fiction of this ilk to work, and because of this, the concept of the Prime Mover and his connection to the Pilgrim functions efficiently on many levels – both musically and plot-wise.
A purely instrumental track, “Saturni” may be one of the most endearing pieces of music Hybrid Nightmares has ever written. It puts on full display just how far these five musicians have come as a band, and equally so, just how much they have pushed their creative limits on this record. Accompanied by the ominous interlude that is “Firmamentum”, the two songs brilliantly lend themselves to the final track of the album and the record’s title track. As the album draws to a close with “Almagest”, the song sees Hybrid Nightmares put out all the stops. The guitar work of Ben Plant and Michael Gumley across these three tracks, in particular, is just breathtaking.
Just as the lyrics cry out…
At the edge of the ocean,
At the edge of the cosmos
These passages do an excellent job conveying the sense that this has been a grand and arduous journey taken by our main protagonist. Moreover, that, as the crystal portal opens near the precipice of the abyss, knowledge and enlightenment await… The infinite awaits.
With writing akin to the most significant works of Immortal, “Almagest” is the very definition of an extreme metal epic. Adam Batty Chapman’s drumming here is stellar and takes centre-stage (offering further clarity to how talented he is as a musician), while Jonny Helwinter’s bass rings out like the music of the celestials. Troy McCosker’s mix and Thomas ‘Plec’ Johannson’s master for this album is guaranteed to be some of the best you’ll find from an independent release this year. The sound is crisp and distinct, yet still incredibly distorted and that slight bit unorthodox as befitting of the band.
Everything plays out beautifully on Almagest and it all ties together in a manner that is both satisfying and leaves you with the desire to play through it all once again to see what else you have still yet to discover. Almagest is a phenomenal achievement from Hybrid Nightmares and is one of the finest local releases to emerge from Australia in 2017.
Almagest is out now. Hybrid Nightmares is on tour now in support of their brand new album, Almagest (presented by Brimstone Bookings). Be sure to catch them at one of their shows, you won’t regret it!