Battle Hag onstage Credit: Vinnie Guidera

Like millions of Americans, I’ve felt sadness and heartache (and plenty of other emotions) since the lethal coup attempt at the Capitol on January 6. Not only has the Trump administration let the COVID-19 pandemic rampage through the country (at the time of this writing it was killing more than 4,000 Americans per day), but it’s also turned a blind eye to the surge of white supremacist activity that it’s enabled for years. An explosion has felt inevitable since November, and it’s hard to believe that our leaders simply underestimated the threat of violence posed by a pro-Trump mob inflamed by constant lies about a stolen election—in fact it’s becoming clearer that some of them allowed, encouraged, or even facilitated the attack.

The Battle Hag album Celestial Tyrant, released on cassette earlier this month, isn’t overtly political, and I’m not projecting any political affiliations or motivations onto the Sacramento metal band’s four members. But the three colossal long-form tracks on Celestial Tyrant are heavy in a way that will feel familiar to anyone living through these dangerous times—which for many have been compounded by nearly a year of isolation, illness, and loss. If you picture Atlas carrying his burden and think to yourself, “Now there’s a guy I can relate to,” you’re probably not alone.

Battle Hag begin Celestial Tyrant focusing on a different story from Greek mythology: the abduction of Persephone by Hades and the heroic efforts of her mother, Demeter, to save her daughter from spending eternity in the underworld. The opening song, “Eleusinian Sacrament,” has three parts in order to mirror the ancient Greek ritual that retells Demeter’s arduous quest and celebrates Persephone’s rescue and rebirth (some scholars suggest that it involved taking psychedelic drugs).

The track starts with mournful guitars and growled, slow-moving vocals, then opens into a dark, beautiful abyss. It later transitions into something like a march or processional, with smidges of light coming through in the warm bass notes at its core, and finally into a passage that conveys the bittersweet reverence of a grueling journey completed—the kind of journey that forever transforms whoever undertakes it. The song ends back in the daylight world, and as its closing sample of lapping waves commingles with dreamy guitar, it invokes the spring thaw after a long winter.

Celestial Tyrant‘s second and third tracks are arguably even more entrancing. “Talus” oozes triumphant strength from its steadfast drums and soaring guitars, both of which befit the giant, mythological bronze automaton that lends the song its name; “Red Giant,” at nearly 20 hypnotic minutes, feels like an Odyssean voyage of its own.

Doomy, sludgy metal might seem like a strange thing to turn to while politicians, scientists, and journalists alike sound the alarm that things will get worse before they get better. But the resilient spirit of Celestial Tyrant—whose lead track recapitulates an ascent from the land of the dead—suggests what might await us if we can collectively toil through our turmoil. It will no doubt take us a while to find our way out of the dark, and this probably won’t be our last trip into it. But stories like the myth of Demeter and Persophone ask us to believe that privation and suffering are always followed by rebirth.  v


The Listener is a weekly sampling of music Reader staffers love. Absolutely anything goes, and you can reach us at thelistener@chicagoreader.com.