A guy on a cell phone stands outside of a Washington state casino and drops this: "I wanted to take a vacation from the Celtic aspect of my writing and get back into the myths and fables of The Ancient Ones. I wanted to combine the mythologies of the Sumerians and the Mesopotamians with pure chaotic magic. That was my intention."
Let's suppose a passerby were to amble past, hearing only that statement and missing the rest of the conversation. One might assume the spectator would either giggle at or worry for the man on the phone, ostensibly a nutjob babbling about Babylonian diety Marduk or Saturn or the rape of one goddess by a god. To make matters more perplexing, this guy has called himself Proscriptor McGovern for nearly 20 years, during which time he's led the ferocious death/ black metal band—from the unlikely place of Plano, Texas—named Absu. Textbook case, right?
That feeling of consternation must be what it's like to read the lyrics of Absu, Proscriptor's first album with Absu in eight years, without hearing the music, too: "Serpentine lamias and ravage-clawed harpies," goes the album's epic with the manifesto-like title, "...Of the Dead Who Never Rest in Their Tombs Are The Attendance of Familiar Spirits... Including: A.) Diversified Signs Inscribed B.) Our Earth of Black C.) Voor." "Liquefy and eat into the gifts of decay," Proscriptor continues.
On paper and in passing, Absu seems awfully esoteric. Composed by Proscriptor, his bandmates Zawicizuz (sound it out) and Aethyris (ditto), and several multisyllabic collaborators, the lyrics twist through ancient histories and parables transmitted in the most archaic words and allusions: "Magic(k) Square Cipher" outlines a system of mathematics meant for sorcery, for instance, where numerology and symbols are used to invoke some higher power. Another tune references four winds, seven nights, runes, weapons, incantations and "the blaze of Laurel." You know, maybe the stuff that made you pick on that guy in high school. If such language doesn't apply to your life, Proscriptor isn't disappointed.
"No, it really doesn't," says Proscriptor of the need to make his lyrics somehow relevant, even though he compiled a 40-page glossary of terms to accompany Absu's 2001 album, Tara, so that people might better understand it. "If people are fascinated with metal and the occult and cosmology and ancient history altogether, then they will dig deep to find out what Absu is all about."
There's no reason to believe Proscriptor isn't telling the truth, no suspicion that he's actually hoping his lyrics have an effect on foreign policy or modern medicine. But in his curt officiousness, he is brushing off what seems so obvious: Taken as a whole and in context, Absu is more than one of the year's most exhilarating metal records, a dense avalanche of technical and thematic risk and reward that keeps pouring it on just when one assumes the band has hit its peak. It's also a brilliantly atavistic reinvention of a band that almost died on a hot Texas vine. After multiple lineup changes and three albums, Absu went on hiatus in January 2003. Several months earlier, Proscriptor's wrist had to be reconstructed after he was "forced off of a 12-foot ladder," as he puts it. He was in a cast for four months, and some doubted he'd ever be able to play again. But he was determined. He found new bandmates and returned to his lyrical origins, taking on The Ancient Ones for the first time since Absu's 1993 debut, Barathrum.
So, on Absu, Proscriptor's getting back to his beginnings—giving up, starting over, looking for the strength to do both in unlikely places. "Annihilate the seeds of real/ Abandon the standard dimension feel," goes the album's most anthemic moment. The old tales and the obsession with chaos serve as a reset button of sorts, a way of getting back to basics to arrive at brilliance. That's an idea and accomplishment that would certainly be lauded back inside that Washington state casino.
Absu plays Volume 11 Tavern with Rumpelstiltskin Grinder, Sothis, Faith in Ashes and Legion of the Fallen Tuesday, June 23, at 8 p.m. Tickets are $15.