Imperial Triumphant Credit: Alex Krauss

The overlap between extreme metal and avant-garde improvised music is admittedly slight, but that tiny patch of ground produces some extravagantly bizarre fruits—among them New York City trio Imperial Triumphant. Drummer Kenny Grohowski frequently collaborates with downtown-scene daddy John Zorn, most notably performing his music in Simulacrum with guitarist Matt Hollenberg of Cleric and organist John Medeski. And bassist Steven Blanco not only has a history as a jazz pianist but also plays bass in PAK with guitarist Ron Anderson of Molecules and Rat at Rat R fame, alongside Cleric drummer Larry Kwartowitz. The dissonant, shape-shifting tangle of black and death metal on Imperial Triumphant’s new fourth full-length, Alphaville, uses improvisation only in its details—these are unmistakably composed pieces—but it does adopt the avant-garde stance of insisting that you come to it. Frenzied, decadent, and spring-loaded with unpredictable shifts in mood and intensity, this chaotic but tightly controlled music has no special interest in catchy riffs, and it doesn’t care if you’re tired of waiting for a chorus—it’s not going to meet you on your terms. Grohowski, Blanco, and guitarist and front man Zachary Ilya Ezrin used a producer for the first time on Alphaville, working with Trey Spruance of Mr. Bungle (who’s also enlisted Grohowski for his band Secret Chiefs 3). The resulting arrangements are the most jarring and florid of the band’s career, incorporating an elegant unaccompanied piano-and-trombone duet, delirious choral vocals, an interlude of nonidiomatic taiko drumming, corny silent-film organ, and even a barbershop quartet that’s draped in static like a dusty old 78. Blanco’s bass takes the stairs three at a time, indulging in gymnastics and convolutions that might read as “jazzy” if it weren’t for his weird harmonic choices; he constantly changes his angle of approach to Ezrin’s spindly, laddering riffs, whose high-wire act is broken up by nerve-wracking wobbles of tremolo and tense, queasy intervallic leaps. Grohowski’s formidable drumming almost makes the music’s metrical oddities comprehensible, even as he shifts between light-footed, impossibly fast blastbeats, snarled tech-death, and loose, splattery fills. Even in black and death metal as bastardized as this, misanthropy is de rigueur, and Imperial Triumphant give theirs a special New York flavor. Their lyrics, which Ezrin delivers in a clotted howl, convey a bilious contempt for the city’s wealthy parasites—and the cover of Alphaville, with its sinister art deco imagery, links their amoral excess to America’s civilizational suicide by capitalism in the 1920s. Our own self-immolation is well under way—U.S. billionaires have grown more than $600 billion richer during the pandemic, while almost 40 million Americans have applied for unemployment—and it promises to leave the country uninhabitable for everyone but the white-collar criminals who’ve persuaded the world they’re its elite. To indict this towering corruption, Imperial Triumphant enact a furious boiling over of the human energies it exploits.   v

Philip Montoro

Philip Montoro has been an editorial employee of the Reader since 1996 and its music editor since 2004. Pieces he has edited have appeared in Da Capo’s annual Best Music Writing anthologies in 2005, 2006, 2007, 2008, 2010, and 2011. He shared two Lisagor Awards in 2019 for a story on gospel pioneer Lou Della Evans-Reid and another in 2021 for Leor Galil's history of Neo, and he’s also split three national awards from the Association of Alternative Newsmedia: one for multimedia in 2019 for his work on the TRiiBE collaboration the Block Beat, and two (in 2020 and 2022) for editing the music writing of Reader staffer Leor Galil. Philip has played scrap metal in Lozenge, drummed with the Disasters, the Afflictions, and Brilliant Pebbles, and sung for the White Outs. He wrote the column Beer and Metal from 2012 till 2015, and hopes to do so again one day. You can also follow him on Twitter.