They came, they saw, they released one excellent album, and then they vanished without a trace, very much the immaculate enigma. SERMON made an indelible impression on the hazy world of modern progressive metal back in 2019, despite only performing live on one occasion, divesting no information at all about those involved – beyond the involvement of DECAPITATED drummer James Stewart – and, most importantly, refusing to fit into an easily defined subgenre. That debut, "Birth Of The Marvellous", lived up to its name, as the mysterious Him unveiled his unique recipe for atmospheric impact. Yes, you could point to the likes of KATATONIA, OPETH and ANATHEMA as potential reference points, but between the intensity of its most extreme moments and the perversity of its textural blend, SERMON's first foray was distinctive and daring enough to stand out from everything around it. It also packed a huge emotional punch, with sorrow and grief hanging heavy over every note.
Not surprisingly, considering events of the last few years, "Of Golden Verse" is a more fractious, anxious and brutal record than its predecessor. A study of abuses of power, from the personal to the political, it retains the debut's elusive, metaphorical radiance, while striding into more aggressive, technical territory. After a tense, haunting intro, "Royal" swiftly establishes where SERMON are at in 2023. This is a more punishing and intricate take on the band's idiosyncratic strain of prog metal, with Stewart's superhuman drumming providing an unbreakable spine around which Him winds his pitch-black, poetic yarn, pained urgency dripping from every twist and turn. In the grand tradition of just about everybody, the heavy bits are heavier and the melodic bits are more incisive than before, but the overall atmosphere is quite distinct from the first album's icy serenity. "Light The Witch" reinforces the point: it's more muscular and momentous, with cracked-mirror shades of KILLING JOKE bubbling up from the intricacies of Him's riffs, and a palpable sense that SERMON are engaging more directly with the outside world second time around.
Momentarily straightforward, "The Distance" is an imperious bit of metal songwriting and the one moment here that hints gently at ambitions beyond cloaked mystique and cult status. A driving, melancholy riff propels everything forward, with more soaring melodies and oddball embellishments dissolving into the fabric of the groove and leading to an intoxicating ambient coda. Next, "Senescence" plays the role of show-stopping ballad; unfolding over eight, indulgent and gleefully proggy minutes, before "Wake The Silent" sprints to the other end of the dynamic spectrum for a firestorm of interlocked riffs and anguished howls. "Golden" is the preview single, and it's easy to see why. The all-new SERMON sound in a shiny nutshell, it's catchy and polished but simultaneously dense and challenging. Meanwhile, epic closer "Departure" may be the finest song here. Stewart's blastbeats are legendary at this point, not least due to many years spent with VADER, but it still comes as a surprise that they fit so seamlessly into SERMON's evolved, post-metal barrage. With Him's incensed, spittle-spraying vocal, "Departure" builds steadily towards another vast crescendo, and then, inevitably, all is silence. Bravo.
As unexpected and characterful as they were the first time, SERMON are back to confirm that giving it all away isn't the only way. If being elusive motherfuckers leads to music as powerful as this, then we should encourage it. Praise be.