Catacomb Ventures – Damnation of a Decade

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End 2019 in pure revulsion.

The year is finally coming to an end and the best-of lists are here to hearken untold thousands of albums, demos, EP’s, and splits as paragons of metal excellence. Of course, you’re more than familiar with many of them; that’s why you’re here for something off of the beaten path and into the foreboding depths. Here are 12 lesser known releases from 2019 you should be grabbing before 2020.

Xantam
Altered State
Blood Harvest

 

I do remember listening to this band’s first demo back when it was released in 2016 but I don’t remember too much beyond it being promising but unfulfilling. Warp forward to today and everything that was hinted at then metamorphosed into a full-blown hurricane from the Dungeons & Dragon style cover art to the vigorously aggressive and uncommon take on the idea of blackened death. Whereas most bands under that umbrella nowadays are invested into the “cavernous,” doomy, norsecore, or dissonant branches this solo project focuses on a surging melody-driven attack that brings to mind the earliest practitioners of the long since disgraced genre of melodic death metal. They differ from Unanimated and Eucharist in the incredibly aggressive riffing and frequent blasting, using rigid blasting American death metal rhythms embedded with classic Swedish style melodies for a sound similar to the sadly forgotten Thevetat but with these longer arching riffing patterns that add a sense of beauty to the carnage swirling underneath.

This emphasis on consistent aggression even when the tempo slows down would be tedious on paper but riff-wizard Xantam The Beholder uses this backdrop of near hypnotic ripping and tearing to gradually work in recurring and gradually morphing melodic patterns, adding in clean guitars and easily memorable single-note themes that gradually unveil the greater structural layout of each song. This is enhanced by a very clear (though thankfully not plasticine) production that gives each instrument a good sense of grit and weight while retaining an almost remastered live rehearsal sense of crispiness. On occasion the band dabbles in a little bit of dungeon synth (because of course the D&D themed band does) though it’s relegated to the intro, outro, and parts of the nine minute epic track—whether or not that’s a good thing depends on your love of the genre though I personally had little issue with it.

Burial in the Woods
Church of Dagon
Rain Without End Records

This funeral doom band themed after H.P. Lovecraft (really specific I know) didn’t sound very interesting to me until the unusually gratuitous lead guitar and pipe organ kicked in. While most of their subgenre compatriots are content to be sparse and minimalist, Germany’s Burial in the Woods prefer to give the four songs that comprise this album a healthy smattering of kind of lush harmonies and big booming gothic pipe-droning. This comes to a head on the track “Ecclesia Dagoni” where it basically turns into an extended display of organ and lead guitar showboating which is about the last thing I expect on a funeral doom album (though Mournful Congregation did shred pretty hard on the title track of their last one).

The grim imagery of the cover and ominous song titles give way to a sound that I’ve described before as Thergothon attempting to cover Castlevania music. This results in an incredibly rich sound with a slightly carnival-esque atmosphere due to how much is going on at once, mirroring two other funeral doom bands this year: Quercus with Verferum and Omination with The New Golgotha Repvbliq. They are more direct than the former and far less punishing and bizarre than the latter. It’s not necessarily that complicated as much as it is heavily layered and for those who prefer the genre in its far more somber make-every-riff-count oriented forms this will likely come off as excessive. Still it has a liveliness and energy that most funeral doom lacks, not quite to the same degree as Evoken or Lycus especially with its considerably less detailed drumming but definitely moreso than say the glacial pace of more conservative stylistic giants such as Profetus or Ataraxie. If you like your funeral doom to be less woe-is-me and more nocturnal forest-dwelling cults summoning ancient evils then this sole release of theirs will be an enticing and delightfully ghoulish listen.

Thirsty Demon
Warning Death
Dissonant Death Records

Okay, that band name isn’t super enticing exactly and sounds more like some sort of Venom and Tankard–worshipping band but please don’t switch the tab, this is the opposite of that. Multi- instrumentalist Cristian Léon’s solo project thankfully brings us boozetime-free riffing and hearkens back to a sound that while OLD SCHOOL DEATH METAL 666 AS HELL GOATWARRIORS is inexplicably under-represented today. It’s thrashy and nasty in a way that brings to mind late 80’s legends like Necrovore and Incubus but focusing less on ear-scraping crunch riffs and moreso on lengthier evil tremolo riffing embedded with those sinister melodies that Chileans love dating all the way back to the glory days of the Chilean Pentagram’s two legendary 1987 demos. This is a vicious sound featuring a healthy amount of skank beats and sustained aggressive pacing with some gutwrenchingly satisfying moments of carefully placed blasts, breaking up its spreading inferno of sleeker riffs with choice punchy chords. It balances a surprising amount of ideas in each song with relatively little repetition but it does so in such a visceral, aggressive manner that it never really feels like it’s about Cristian’s subtly strong ear for songwriting as much as it is his knowledge of how to combine ripper after ripper of string-flaying savagery.

In spite of that it never really becomes pure background texture with each of the three songs (excluding a short acoustic interlude) fitting together a good deal of tempo changes and distinctly shaped patterns held together by choice melodies. That is probably the most modern thing about this excellent demo; while it is borne of ancient unearthed monstrosities, it controls its horrid powers with a sense of insidious planning and finesse that wasn’t around for Divus de Mortuus or God Died on His Knees, not that it’s a slight against either of those legends. Whether you prefer Ritualization, Maligner, or Oxygen Destroyer, this album will appeal to you one way or the other regardless of how hard you thrash or how rottenly you death.

Ancient Crypts
Inhaling the Fumes of a Burning Carcass
Crypts of Eternity Productions

After a 7-year wait, the Crypts have opened again and this cult act rises once more with their heaviest work to date. Those familiar with Devoured By Serpents will recognize their Dawn of Possession-era Immolation-esque thrashing rhythms and moments of lumbering doominess and they haven’t change much in spite of the huge time gap. Their slower sections are given much more prominence here with an additional emphasis on further articulating those creepy low-key melodies through them, assisted by the drummer’s improved and tasteful usage of various thundering rolls. The Asphyx-iating doom side of their sound is even more prominent here to the extent that the title track, their longest to date, delves into it for 7 minutes at a consistently lumbering pace. It might not be particularly go-for-the-jugular but it shows them knowing how to create a genuinely desolate and hellish atmosphere, going so far as to even have a short clean guitar break that never loses that pervasive morbidity.

Like the previously hailed Thirsty Demon, they too have a notable sense of melody and it displays itself particularly well during that track and their faster moments, bringing to mind Bolt Thrower and Slayer’s more streamlined riffing and even Autopsy if you toned down their punkish recklessness and melded it with an almost Considered Dead-era Gorguts approach to slightly melancholy riffing. This is the more “atmospheric” of the two demos so far and for some this may be a bit of a turn off. The additional variety in songwriting and improved expertise at lower tempos makes it clear that if they wanted they could fully transition into the death/doom subgenre and allow it to feel like a natural progression of this sound. The only gripe is the somewhat messy production which is where Devoured by Serpents wins out with is much clearer, less reverb loving sound. The drums and guitars occasionally can sound rather overpowering for the former and a bit thin for the latter though this is mostly for the more intense moments of which there are less compared to the prior demo.

HWWAUOCH
Into the Labyrinth of Consciousness
Amor Fati Productions

I have no idea what the name means either but I’m hazarding a guess it’s what your parents would say if you put this on their headphones at max volume. Part of black metal’s Prava Kollektiv (the others being Pharmakeia, Arkhtinn, Voidsphere and Mahr), his band of unknown origins and musicians plays a highly discordant form of black metal best described as “massive” and “disorienting.” Black metal using aggressive and abstracted riffing to create ambience is nothing new but HWWAUOCH build upon it by using layers of tortuously abrasive harmonies that almost but not quite enter the realms of formless noise to create these layered atmospheres almost like multiple communication channels clashing with and melding into one another.

Bass plays an important role in counterpointing hazy storms of chords almost but not fully melding with the drumming with low register lines that almost call out to the listener—a tempting lure of coherence amidst a backdrop of psyche-disintegrating horror. Melodies of a desperate, melancholy nature frequently emerge from behind the wall of alien sound and the rising hysterical shrieks that command them, gradually worming their way into your head and shifting the mood of each song as it converges on legible concepts hidden underneath its own decadent delirium. At a few key moments you will even encounter these refreshingly clear leads juxtaposed with rushing floods of radio static guitar work as if beckoning you closer to the fangs of some awaiting predator. With all of this going on the album has this kind of manic delivery to it that is oddly enough reminiscent of war metal or more aggressive, semi-ambient black death like Eskhaton and Impetuous Ritual. This is far less driven by raw boneheaded rhythm or as obsessively atonal but if you enjoy the realms of pure torture those bands present but want something with additional layers of harmony and strange interplay between chaos and coherence, both of this band’s albums will do the trick.

Har
Anti-Shechinah
Independent

What the hell is that cover? A poorly drawn rabbit with a gas mask? Whatever though, this little demo fucks. Adding a potentially lethal injection of ripping death metal into their sound in the vein of Vorum circa Current Mouth, Har strike back a year after Visitation with their most oppressively barbaric release to date. Militaristic soul-flaying riffs march forth before shattering into battalions of bloodthirsty charging subdivisions but leave room for moments of perverse and unsettling dissonant harmonies to coil and waft over this ravaged battleground, haunting and wraithlike for a fusion of the bloodthirsty with the esoteric.

Its level of sheer intensity rises to a level of bewildering, obfuscating confusion akin to Liers in Wait and Bloodspill (Texas) but the band’s willingness to use lumbering slower chords bearing malformed tonalities to let the songs rest for brief flashes making those forays into upheaval and obliterating mazes of riffs all the more impactful. It is pretty damn complex in spite of an aesthetic that is not exactly terribly modern but at the same time this relentless carnage which normally was the domain of more modern and brutal death type bands is refreshing to hear in a context more ancient and ethereally malevolent than Disgorge and Behemoth.

It took a lot of repeating plays to get an idea of what each song was going for but once you do what appears to be random mismatched and deformed riffing constantly crashing into one another reveals itself as a series of escalating battles broken up by moments of misty alienating ambiguity. Of particular interest is the third track which throws in straight up war metal riffs but instead of becoming forgettable power chord wallpaper, they manage to work them into this more nuanced approach to chaotic blasting metal and juxtapose it with their less dense moments of fretboard witchery. Far from what I’d call avant-garde, but it’s really cool to hear riffs another band would fumble with being used in a very different context to a far greater effect.

Ritual Chalice
The Scorn of Knowledge
Independent

Formed by members of the hardcore band Timewalk, Ritual Chalice has not a single d-beat or brodown on this three-song demo. Playing classic Greek black metal in the vein of the earlier works of Rotting Christ and Varathron, this Springfield band stick out from contemporaries such as Synteleia and Ithaqua by virtue of basically building on the complexity and musicianship for at heart an upgraded version of classic heavy metal-inspired black metal. If you’ve heard His Majesty at the Swamp or Non Serviam then you basically know the arsenal at their disposal but rather than sounding like a retread, various alterations to harmony, percussion, pacing, and song structure genuinely feel like an expansion on an already reliable model.

Rather than working with a simple pulsing backbeat and marching crunchy riffs communicating semi-ambient melodies building up to big shifts in direction, The Scorn of Knowledge gradually works in new leads and tempo changes that cause the songs to unfold faster and in a more “narrative” riff-after-riff manner. While they aren’t particularly technical like Obsequiae, an expanded repertoire of musicality allows them to elaborate and flesh out already rock-solid riffing with choice fills for emphasis and elegant lead flourishes, at times almost reminding of some of the more aggressive US power metal bands like Helstar or Liege Lord in brief moments with the more nimbly picked portions.

Even the production has seen a massive upgrade from the incredibly snappy drum sound to the slightly thin if resolute and lightly crunched up guitar tone. Even the synths sound higher quality, popping in out of nowhere to add a more supernatural grandeur to the proceedings with surprisingly resolute tones. In essence, this is the best kind of “worship” band. They make zero effort to hide who their biggest inspirations are (and you would have no excuse not to notice it) but they find a way to not only honour these influences but directly build on them bridging the past to the present with their own spin on how they would reinterpret classic ideas for a modern age. Probably the biggest surprise this year for me.

Utterance
Conflagration
Independent

In stark contrast to typical Brazilian death metal, Utterance takes a slower methodical approach with a much more measured usage of blast beats distantly inspired by classic USDM with a distinctly non-Scandinavian sense of melody, reminding a bit of a less shred-oriented Brutality crossed with Mexico’s Shub Niggurath circa The Kinglike Celebration: Final Aeon on Earth. These two songs go through a meticulous number of tightly played riffs with the sort of lurking sense of brooding melody and build up you’d associate with Sadistic Intent, Morbid Angel, and a slower Dead Congregation. What truly makes them stand out is the incredibly methodical pacing of their sound.

While it is morose and hellish death metal to the core it’s not often particularly aggressive and never actually lets loose. They’re content to use these carefully creeping patterns that churn and boil like streams of living lava-covered centipedes creeping over double-kick heavy percussion, gradually resolving lengthy passages less so with a bang and moreso with a gradual dissipation of conflict and coiling chord patterns. This puts them in a very odd spot in the death metal revival movement even amongst the bands already outside of the Finnish/Pacific Northwest, Swedish, Incantacavernous, “caveman” and other such styles.

They don’t really have the chaotic grind-descended portions of the Incantation-style bands, they’re very melodic but it never really sounds that Dismember or Demigod, and while they get slow it never really turns into Spectral Voice-style plodchug either while the thrash influence is a bit more subtle and implicit than ripping away at Orator (Bangladesh) speeds. Even a Bolt Thrower comparison doesn’t really work in spite of the tempo as it’s less of a muscular marching approach to rhythm and more of a dreadfully creeping slow burn. So I guess I mean to say this is “unique” in the sense that the even the first sentence doesn’t really capture what these guys sound like and this reviewer can’t find an easy comparison.

Sijjin
Angel of the Eastern Gate
Independent

Mors Dalos Ra and Iván Hernandéz from Necros Christos, joined by modern day thrash veteran Ekaitz Garmendia, started this classic 80’s style death/thrash band to little fanfare or recognition. What a shame because on every front it manages to capture the maddening infernal spirit of that seminal time in extreme metal history but infuse it with a keen ear for advancements in structure and melody that are distinctly contemporary. Most death/thrash today focuses on concussive impact and whirlwind intensity but Sijjin by contrast takes a more detached and dare I say atmospheric take to this beloved fusion genre by focusing on slowly shifting melodies and lengthier tremolo patterns.

It’s unusually melodic for death/thrash and a few of these riffs probably would not have sounded too out of place in Mors’ better known band though in practice it brings to mind Hell Awaits-era Slayer especially when they play these fluid often uninterrupted riffs fitting lock-and-key over a steady skank beat. A good degree of repetition is utilized though they use it build up intensity, familiarity, and mood only to deviate just when you think they’ll settle into an easy pattern. Changes in speed and riffing shape are used quite strategically while much of the drumming uses its rolls only at a few specific mid-speed sections and blasts just to emphasize a few particular rhythmic deviations. They’re also experts at using crunchier, more jagged riffing to break apart and vary core melodies and unlike a lot of thrash bands actually even shine at times when they slow down.

Like with the previously described Brazilians, Sijjin’s songwriting is a very strategic take on a classic style. It definitely loses out on the sense of youthful madness and vitriol but what it gains in terms of creating and releasing tension as well as interestingly structured riff-symphonies gives it an incredibly distinct character of its own.

Perversion Flames
Demo III
Independent

Sijjin not destructive enough for you? Well the new Perversion Flames demo should do the trick. Their German counterparts might be holding back on unleashing the bestial impulse for total annihilation inherent to the most extreme ends of thrash, but yet another Chilean band has no such hesitations. Across three lengthy songs in the 5 to 6-minute range this band rips through sprawling architectural formations of nasty rapid-fire guitar flaying. Think less of proto-blackened brooding and moreso on the breakneck intensity and invigorating power of the same thrashy classics that inspired them as well as 80’s Morbid Angel when they decided to take the gloves off and go straight for the jugular.

Even when the band drops the speed for the second track on this demo it becomes anything but tame with its bewitching cadenced fist-pump rhythms giving way to a divergence into an unexpectedly ritualistic set of rolling toms and disjointed, arching chromatic notes. Next to that is a surprisingly expressionist or “soulful” solo assisted by a simple but devilishly effective tremolo lead to harmonize it then tossing an even more intense solo our way, getting a lot of mileage from simple but highly effective ideas. It’s refreshingly free of the usual hardcore and grind tropes that have crept into a lot of classic-worshipping death metal as of late while having a genuinely rabid nature to it lacking in a lot of thrash.

If you enjoyed Thirsty Demon then this is a great companion listen, boldly flaunting the signs of Slayer, Destruction, and Razor that the other band had strategically toned down and a much rawer production with distantly clanging snares and buzzing grainy guitar. It does sometimes feel like the songs are so long without always justifying their length with sufficient development of all the ideas they’re trying out but the riotous carnage they unleash and pure conviction behind it are hard to not be enthralled by.

Fallen Angel
Transcend with the Dead and Rotten
Analog Overdose Records

Siijjin, Thirsty Demon and Perversion Flames combined not doing it? What the hell is wrong with your tiny poser br- oh right, well this Los Angeles band’s latest should do the trick. The previously mentioned bands all were thrashy to varying degrees but clearly represent sounds that were at most sitting just a few metres past the border into death metal and still retained a lot of thrash characteristics morphed to new insidious ends. Fallen Angel does too but it’s coated in a layer of dingy grime before emerging from its foul cocoon bearing the mutations of bands like Profanatica, Nunslaughter, and even Sumerian Cry-era Tiamat. This has satanic filthiness where the others had sheer ferocity, taking minimalist charging riffing patterns that border on early black metal placed within self-destructive, conflicted compositions.

They know how to play off of the tension these short phrases made of a few paired riffs to sudden breaks in repetition and trance-like hypnotism to pure wide-eyed terror and ravenous predatory hunger, expertly using blasts and simple single-string playing to converge onto thematic conclusions of murky chords. Whereas minimalism often comes with connotations of excessively repeating a few decent ideas that tire themselves out fast, Fallen Angel use it to strip every idea down to its basest essentials and most easily discernible shape, ensuring that when something does change in the scheme of each track it’s a very stark and even outright adversarial contrast to established ideas. It does have a glaring issue of the production on each of the four tracks being glaringly different (the second is unfortunately pretty crackly) and this near war metal ugly sound definitely isn’t for everyone. If they can fix the former (or just settle onto a tighter version of the production on the “Rites of Descent” track) then they’ll be well on their way to producing a classic for the ages.

Deathsiege
Cannibalistic Patricide
Independent

Still not enough, you depraved lunatic? Well, let’s end this feature with the most abominable of them all. Israel’s Deathsiege arm themselves with the same arsenal of arcane secrets of the prior band and take them to their furthest extremes, becoming by and far the most savage band on this feature, increasing the speed to practically hyperspace and reducing the riffing to the simplest, most stripped down, bullet-streamlined shape. There’s not even much in the way of reverb with the coldly empty, rehearsal space production rendering the guitar parts near bare as the centrepiece around this. All of this means that their sound is as intensely focused as it is impressively mayhem-filled. The idea behind these three songs is ludicrously simple but it never feels lowbrow either.

A really, really simple riff is played really quickly as if it’s trying to break free of Earth’s orbit and as it goes the phrasing is changed after a few bars—maybe a few more strips of a quasi-melody, a sudden ringing downstroke chord, climbing up or down the scale a little, maybe a noisy little solo and so on. Not a single nanosecond of it goes to waste and neither does the blink-and-you’ll miss it drumming with accents and rolls simple on paper but each one egging on these riffs to hit new heights of absurdist depravity. This snowballing effect of simple ideas gradually combining to fulfill a larger plan gives each song a growing sense of raw power that starts off almost unremarkably before hitting a peak of insanely headbang-inducing over-flowing energy, near torturous in their unwillingness to compromise this intransigently reductive approach to riffing. With how short each song is and just how quickly it all resolves itself, it’s almost like the genre’s equivalent to a line of coke before getting into a short lived, nasty fight that leaves only shattered bodies and brain-rotted fiery highs in its wake. Hail total death.

Cover image courtesy of Joe McEvoy.

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