Sometime before occult rock became cool and ripe for commercial exploitation, BLOOD CEREMONY were very much its standard bearers. Released an alarming 15 years ago now, the Canadians' self-titled debut stylishly nailed the whole proto-metal riffs and flute thing with such natural flair and casual authenticity that few have equaled it since. After three further full-lengths, culminating in 2016's acclaimed "Lord of Misrule", BLOOD CEREMONY haven't exactly stepped away from their original sound, but "The Old Ways Remain" is both more varied and more streamlined than any previous effort. With a production that favors dusty and dry over doomed-out and distorted, some fans of their earlier efforts will probably feel short-changed in terms of all-out heaviness. In truth, this is simply a more relaxed and, as a result, more entertaining incarnation of that original blueprint.
An organ drone, a classic, bluesy riff, and they're off to the races: "The Hellfire Club" is a nimble, strutting opener with a strong late '60s psych rock feel and a typically deadpan and dramatic vocal from Alia O'Brien. It's a simple start, and one that paves the way for several more succinct and fiendishly catchy songs. "Ipisissimus" is difficult to type, but easy to love, with its straight-ahead flute rock vibe and red-eyed, sauntering groove; "Lolly Willows" begins in a similar vein, before spiraling towards an inconclusive crescendo; "Powers of Darkness" is more pop than psych, with sweet harmonies and a laconic, shambling demeanor; "Widdershins" starts like THE PRETTY THINGS with a Ouija board fetish and ends amid swarming flutes and witchy queasiness.
Despite shrugging off most of doom's trappings, BLOOD CEREMONY still have deep roots in heavy music's origins, and sepia-tinged, cobwebbed macabre still drives their songwriting. "Eugenie" is a dark, rambling epic with supernatural inclinations; "The Bonfires At Belloc Coombe" match Sean Kennedy's true-blood riffs with feral fiddle and a mischievous Alia O'Brien, seemingly adrift in sonic space and reveling in stereo freedom; "Song Of The Morrow" dreamily backstrokes its way down the psychedelic country rock river, taking a left turn into rambunctious prog territory and departing, leaving nothing but feedback and ghostly echoes of the past. Weirdest of all, and immensely charming as a result, "Hecate" makes like a bright-eyed soul-pop hit from the mid '60s, with only a faint, shimmering frisson of devilry keeping it the right side of incongruous.
At its heart, "The Old Ways Remain" is an act of intuitive expansion, as BLOOD CEREMONY find new ways to express oft-told tales. Its blend of lithe garage rock and woozy, pastoral prog may be a step too far from the SABBATH-ian code for some, but the band themselves sound utterly at home in their newly colorful surroundings. Even the old ways need a freshen up from time to time.