Ascending the Abyss picks up where Grendel’s last album, Age of the Disposable Body, left off. Even that unexpected but sublimely placed saxophone from “Severed Nations” returns.
AOTDB was an absolute masterpiece that revamped who Grendel is and traded the act’s aggrotech origins for sharp, incisive messages about the uncertain times we live in. It remains the definitive album of any genre pontificating the crumbling of civility in the era of Brexit and Trump.
On Ascending the Abyss, Grendel tackles the same global themes but makes a sharp perspective change. He comes at these issues from a deeply personal, individual lens. When he sings to “you,” he’s no longer pleading with mankind to address “a fever over the land.” Now he’s singing directly to an individual and struggling with how to forge these broken paths together. The political has become very personal.
In many respects, this is a romantic album, despite the bleak setting. Don’t be surprised to hear lyrics like “as you lay here in my arms tonight.” In “Cloak & Dagger,” he actually sings “baby” a number of times, which can feel a bit jarring from an artist like Grendel, but he sells it.
That first-person vulnerability combined with chugging industrial noise actually recalls, of all things, NIN’s first album, Pretty Hate Machine. It’s especially apparent on “Bitter Tide,” which feels like an industrial rock song with the chorus “we had it allllll, I gave my all for you.”
Industrial rock doesn’t quite capture the music on this album. It’s EBM and metal and synthpop, and it is simultaneously aggressive and melodic. I can even hear elements of synthwave (the final track could be on the Stranger Things soundtrack) and some Pink Floyd-style sonics.
The other big development is that there’s an optimism to this album that wasn’t apparent on AOTDB. Grendel was really pissed off about Brexit, but now he seems to have some hope. On “Caught in the Middle,” he promises to keep working to make the future better, and on “Fire and Light” he makes an astute comparison between clubbing and current events: “dancing in the cold night we’re bringing the fire.”