Catacomb Ventures – Tenfold Terror of Early Winter

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As the wretched year of 2020 drags itself to a pathetic and vile end deserving of the innumerable miseries it has visited upon us, naturally those living under the reign of fear and disease yearn for the sweet ecstasy of extreme metal in these foul times. Here are 10 fresh wounds of thrashing, blackened, doomed, and deathly intransigence from throughout this horrid year perfect for whatever hellish confinement you are trapped in.

Satan’s Cross
Celebration of the Fallen
Sun & Moon Records

Hailing to a tradition of black metal old enough to still not even be properly unearthed, this Mexico two-piece plays a highly Italian-reminiscent variant of the genre, taking the decrepit tomb-ritualism of cults such as Death SS, Paul Chain, Mortuary Drape and merges them into a doomy ’90s black metal framework a la Varathron, Samael, Amen Corner, Necromantia (minus the dual bass guitar), and Rotting Christ. They will not hesitate to blast when need be (track two is a thrashing whirlwind) but as a whole the emphasis is on hypnotic, eerie songs where an atmosphere of unearthed occult evil and hooded worshippers in feverish trance oozes out of every putrefying riff. Quite a bit of older heavy and doom metal influence is present with a bit of a ’70s psychedelic tinge, with its baseline components adding to this atmosphere of the antiquated.

It’s got more going on than its seemingly total retro aesthetic implies but like with Worm’s Gloomlord, it uses its foreboding, fog-shrouded atmosphere to craft its own voice. These songs are far more expansive than they initially seem, avoiding cyclic repetition in exchange for hybridizing repetition and growth to take us through maze-like songs, guiding us to familiar spaces before new and foreboding rooms emerge. One area that might be harder to get behind is the vocal performance which while capable of firmer, gnarled growls sometimes devolves into a strange yowling howl, strained and moaning in a way that may grate on some and for others add to the cryptic air that pervades it. Regardless of this, it’s a great example of at once being extremely oldschool yet when analyzed a little further, displaying a very contemporary approach to classic ideas.

Thirsty Demon
Unconscious Suicide
Dissonant Death Records

Chile is a hotbed of extremity and even in the midst of the global death metal explosion, has managed to craft its own distinct identity uncaring of the growing tedium and hollow worship of the mainline “OSDM” movement. Three of these 8 songs are rerecordings from 2019’s Waning Death demo, benefitting from a far stronger production and the rest displays the same mixture of thrashing violence and anxious, nerve-wracking intensity that defined their excellent debut.

They follow a thrashier lineage like fellow Chileans Coffin Curse and Mexicans Infesticide but differ in their love of longer, smoothly racing tremolo-picked patterns underscored with a strong melodic component like (the also Chilean) Pentagram crossed with ’90s Sadistic Intent (Ancient Black Earth in particular), centering their songs around the interaction between melody and structure. Cristian Léon, the sole member, almost has a slight heavy/speed metal tinge to his guitar work at points, hinting at his work in bands like Hemisferio, Armoured Knight, Insight, and Lunacy, adding to the romanticized, nocturnal atmosphere.

Adding to this is a powerful, full production letting each instrument breathe with a powerful analog-esque sense of fleshy immediacy. Songs work on setting up a core idea through pairing a short cycle of distinct contrasting riffs and breaking off into a further streamlining of melodic aspects to juxtapose the sense of conflict with explosive resolution and finality, returning to the earlier themes from a different perspective to demonstrate how they all fit in. It is a good case of using vicious riffing to communicate more insidious undercurrents of paranoid terror, subtly worming in the same kind of gnawing uncomfortableness and fear that its cover art implies and demonstrates well the strengths of the Chilean scene. In a time where thrashier classic death is on average inexplicably under-represented despite its powerful presence in the early days of the genre, this is a welcome entry to a crowded genre.

Dominus Nox
Legions: II
Independent

The previous band might have hinted at their classic metal leanings but this Portland 4-piece delves into more melodic realms without a second of hesitation. Dominus Nox has a Swedish sound, but rather than another slog through a sea of illusory retro-Swedeath intensity, they have crafted a sound that is at once oddly specific but surprisingly easy to grasp. Vibrantly arching melodies draped in a buzzy tone recall the tremolo architecture pioneered by bands such as A Mind Confused, Eucharist, and A Canorous Quintet, possessing a blackened tinge in the vein of Dissection’s Somberlain and Dawn’s Nær sólen gar niþer for evogher. These are broken up by bits of catchy heavy/thrash riffing in a way that brings to mind Intestine Baalism’s An Anatomy of the Beast in how they vary and separate their melodies. Adding to their tonnage are midtempo Bolt Thrower rhythms evoking The IVth Crusade, especially when they get doomier or the double bass drums start jogging alongside the guitar.

Add a Warhammer 40,000 lyrical theme and cover art and it’s amazing they haven’t blown up yet. The songs are a bit more maze-y than you might expect, cycling through a variety of interrelated riffing in stompy, marching styles and filtering through variations in melody between them for development. It’s a distinctly classic death metal approach to structure, avoiding following into easy hooky verse-and-chorus patterns, perfectly melding accessibility with funeral barbarity and keeping their soaring rhythms backed up by syncopated muscle. The only flaw is that the production is rather weak, partially burying the drum and making the tremolo portions sound like the sounds of a distant battle rather than the artillery barrage you’d hope for. Thankfully, its strengths easily annihilate its flaws and cement them as a band to watch out for in the years to come. They have also released a two-song single before this one, Emperor’s Children, featuring the track “Boltgun” that is not carried over here.

Malgöth
Primordial Dawn
Independent

Thirsty Demon’s name might be a bit of a headscratcher but Malgöth’s sounds almost like a 2005-dated tongue in cheek joke. Thankfully as song titles like “POSSESSED SWORD OF A THOUSAND DEATHS” suggest, they are more interested in destroying any and all hopes of survival than pandering to tedious meme humour. This Toronto warhorde, featuring two vocalists and two members of death-doomers Chasmdweller, plays a hyper-aggressive black/death hybrid that isn’t really war metal but isn’t fully Omegavortex or Ascended Dead style either while also definitely not being “modern” like Vital Remains, Hate Eternal, or brutal death either.

The closest I can think of to this would be Teitanblood with trimmed down songs, all “ritualism” tossed out the window, given a bit of an early NYDM chunkiness, with some added phrasings that hint at thrashier death. Deep gurgling vocals and higher-pitched banshee shrieks argue over a steady stream of molten guitar laced with luridly evocative melody, adding a sense of hypnotic evil to the otherwise near constant jackhammering.

Songs warp through constant unfurling of layers of self-devouring riffing, contrasting between flowing tremolo streams and staccato crunch. Slower sections are used sparingly to give just enough breathing room before knocking you senseless once the grinding carnage restarts, letting the chugs mostly space out the overwhelming flurries of frenzied motion whether at zombie crawl pace or while blasting away. This is incredibly single-minded and narrow in its focus but the contrasts within the riffing and willingness to use melody let it rise beyond the usual brown note blandness of trendy war metal background snooze: every threat of absurd violence is backed up with specifically-tailored musical components to realize it.  There’s a lot going on but the vivid clarity lets it avoid becoming lost in the arms race for maximum brutality while giving us a fresh take on no-holds-barred mayhem.

Felgrave
A Waning Light
Independent

Another solo project, this time from Norway, Felgrave plays a mystifying and psychedelic brand of highly desolate death/doom. While it is riff driven and forceful material, it doesn’t fall into the filthy Asphyx or Spectral Voice category, and it is not entirely focused on pure melancholy to be a part of the My Dying Bride or early Katatonia inspired either. Interplay between both guitars appears at a number of portions, veering into contrapuntal territory on occasion, and weighty lumbering often gives way to more articulate airy guitar, giving the album a very layered sound as they alternate between crushing gloom and reflective atmosphere.

A prominent rhythm section with a number of choice basslines and actively involved percussion add to this, with well timed fills and reflective lower register rumbling giving the 4 lengthy songs making up the meat of the album a fleshed out, undulating sound. Disembowelment influence manifests less in crawling tempos and pounding chords as it does in a number of notable cleaner guitar melodies hanging elegiac over the dreary verses. Its doomy composition does not stop the album from having an actively ever-evolving sound, working in developments in melody and even breaking into blast beat portions on occasion.

An all-pervasive atmosphere of despair remains in spite of this, enhanced by moments of faster technique as much as it is by the funeral dirges. It’s a strong example of a band taking a familiar subgenre and trying less to honour its history and ideals but rather, as a stepping stone to a wider range of expression and implementing ideas that while not completely alien, are not often implemented with this degree of crafting skill and emphasized over the hope-devouring heft of both death and doom metal. I’ve seen this described as something like a doomed up Necrovation and comparisons to Ruins of Beverast but while they aren’t inaccurate per se, I don’t think they fully envelop the various quickly apparent idiosyncrasies present here. One for the gloomier nights and the most desolate of days.

Onirik
The Fire Cult Beyond Eternity
I, Voidhanger Records

Onirik is a band that while clearly a black metal band, on this album don’t seem to have necessarily tried to be a black metal band, odd as that sounds. Comparisons to Ved Buens Ende are not unwarranted here with them having a similar sense of spacious, airy, oddly-toned riffing and a generally avant-garde air to their music. There’s a lot of spacious hovering about one another and the vocals are a harsh black metal snarl, filling the checkboxes for the genre, but that’s when things start getting weird. Nearly the entire length of this album is either polyphonic or in counterpoint with both guitars and the bass constantly moving through and around one another. The end result is almost ambient yet aggressive with drumming courtesy of an ex-Enslaved member providing a percussive counter-argument to the near-nauseating swirl of the stringed instruments above.

At times it can be easy to miss exactly what’s going on between both guitars with just how well they seem to fit into one another with the natural ease of assembling puzzle pieces and other times the bass will seemingly emerge from nowhere not so much to take the lead but further flesh out and continually develop the conversation between the guitars. It’s “technical”-sounding music, less so in the usual noodleprogshred way but moreso in just the way all the components have a constant dialogue amongst themselves. Arguably this is the primary sense of its atmosphere as cloudy, “atmospheric” riffs reveal an underlying architecture that creates its vast sweeping scope, like watching living, ghostly mechanisms work like the hidden veins, bones, and cells of some mysterious cosmic super-entity. It’s definitely a difficult album to get at first but it’s one that rewards the listener picking away at the flourishing, luminous complexities it constantly unveils.

Fleshvessel
Bile of Man Reborn
I, Voidhanger Records

A quick look at this one song EP’s lineup makes it clear this isn’t going to be your average prog death band. Flute, door harp, keyboards, piano, Puerto Rican cuatro, fretless bass, drum programming—they’re juggling quite a bit for their debut venture. It might sound like you’re going to get some flaccid symphonic-progressive casserole but the end result is something far more substantial and alienating. If you remember Phlebotomized’s Immense Intense Suspense from 1994, then this could be thought of as a modern take on their kind of symphonic doomy death. Where their European counterparts were grasping near the edges of their reach at a strange and shapeless idea, these Chicagoans take full advantage of considerably tighter musicianship to take modern prog tropes in a more funereal, eerie direction, using the seeming clash between lumbering death metal and more eclectic instrumentation to create an unnerving clash of what seems like opposing parts.

There are even semi-improvised chamber music-evocative sections that at first seem incongruous with the metallic portions if not for a similar sense of creeping discordance through more anxious, ambiguous intervals—reflecting the same tension and perverse discomfort already native to their grasp of death metal. Repetition is kept to a minimum causing it to unfold nearly constantly with new notation and sections as they create a warped tonality beyond riffs that simply sound “wrong” and moreso turning an entire musical setup that sounds “wrong” into a distinct language of internal conflict and resolution. They even make a big triumphant major key section, a happy one, work just through how well they build up to it and it’s a rare case when such a thing doesn’t feel wrong in death metal. While they do wander close to pure excess, what’s present here presents a fresh angle on death metal that while not entirely new, is nonetheless worthy of further exploration to further the horizons.

Dybbuk
Blinked
Independent

One single-track death metal short release in the double digits lengthwise wasn’t enough so now we’re over to the UK. Guitarist Jake Bielby from Plague Rider runs this solo project with their vocalist James Watts lending his hellthroat to this nightmare excursion into beyond. Where their main band is a flailing cyclone of alien tendrils, Dybbuk trades in eldritch technicality for an unfurling series of layered textures in an almost ambient form. A lot of the guitar work happens at a slower pace with the patterns slowly unfolding in a doomy, dirge-like manner distantly reminiscent of the doomier end of Finnish death metal. Vocals howl and echo with a disturbing incoherence coming in and out of focus like the distant calls of some hungry predator lurking just beyond your sight, following less the rigid vocal lines but rather adding to the looming ambience produced by the guitar.

Interplay between two or more guitar lines forms much of the focus here, one often playing thicker lumbering chords and another playing higher register notes bending the lines between consonance and dissonance, reminiscent of Timeghoul’s spacier lead work. The multiple guitar lines never seem to fully unite as one, at most playing almost but not quite the same thing leading to a feeling as if neither even exist in the same dimensional space. This is all the more punishing with their clear disregard for things like “hooks” or “catchiness”, structured in a way almost like a very, very angry Berlin School style ambient piece filtered through the intestines of Lovecraftian star-eating deities.

At most there are moments of more staccato and punchy riffing but they aren’t here to set up a comforting rhythmic backdrop but instead to jettison along screechier or obtuse pseudo-melodies. There’s even soloing at one point but it’s closer to the lizard-brained parody of melody you’d expect from classic Immolation than anything even marginally close to pleasantly melodic. An incredibly punishing listen moreso conceptually than brutally.

Dreichmere
The Fruit of Barren Fields
Life After Death

Another solo project, this time from Michigan, Dustin Matthews’ Dreichmere has a very ’90s sound but one that’s been contorted in a number of unusual ways to be distinctly 2020 in sound. Their Bandcamp marks them down as being for fans of Opeth, Katatonia, Agalloch, My Dying Bride, and Ved Buens Ende but the end result shouldn’t be thought of as solely dwelling in their shadow. Dreichmere’s sound has the kind of folksy, airy sound to guitar work you’d expect with not a lot of beefy rhythm and it’s combined with a tenuous relationship between consonance and dissonance, not so much in the vein of the last two bands. It’s more akin to a lot of the guitar work feeling almost but not quite melodic but at the same time, not exactly atonal either, dwelling in an unusual twilight zone.

It’s in this realm of ambivalence they write lengthy, multi-sectioned songs centered around stormy phrasings and sudden forays into gloomy lead guitar, occasionally breaking into the expected clean sections less for the sake of relaxation and moreso to create unnerving tension and to elaborate on harmonic patterns. Dustin’s skill on drums and bass is also commendable, tastefully working in a variety of engaging percussive patterns while his bass guitar has a response to every strange and swirly chord he cooks up. His vocals aren’t quite as Åkerfeldt-ian as you might expect, gurgling away at a mid to higher range that adds to the somewhat black metal-esque melancholic forested atmosphere. It’s a struggle to fully wrap your head around with just how particularly arranged it all is, but it’s impressive to watch the increasingly arcane ways these tracks contort and reveal their myriad nuances.

Avlivad
Avlivad
Invictus Productions

With 4 tracks of blasting, ripping black/death, Avlivad joins Malicious, Had, Evil Priest, Inisans, Nekropulse, and Ominovs in making a strong showing for this underappreciated form of classic extremity. This Gothenburg band’s sound can be thought of as also Swedish albeit in the vein of Merciless, Obscurity, Grotesque, early Necrovation, Kaamos, and a far more feral take on earlier Necrophobic. It hearkens back to a time when death metal hadn’t been completely birthed, partially attached to the earliest strains of black metal and the furthest extremes of thrash.

From this womb of savagery comes storming riffs far more fragmented in phrasing than most other black-death fusions and boldly weaving malevolent melodies throughout their frenzied delivery. Stompier, thrashy chords break up the blizzard-like blur of intensity while straight up early black metal riffs create a distant melodic backdrop to desperately thrash against or to settle frenetic, uncertain thematic undercurrents. While they aren’t afraid to slow down on occasion, the speed at which the songs develop ensures it never feels too complacent.

Like a proper thrash band, they let a particular set of riffs settle in through semi-repetitious impact then branch away at key intervals with variations in phrasing or development of melody emerging in brilliant displays of compact carnage. Beneath its apparent atavistic simplicity hides a good deal of content with the songs being far more fleshed out than you’d typically expect of most ultra-throwback bands in this vein. This is by and far the most “modern” part of them—the songs feel like near-random bursts of predatory hunger but reveal themselves to be unusually fleshed out and capable of resolving their individual narrative threads with impressive confidence.

It’s similar to Oakland band Funeral Chant though with a more fractured approach to riffing and structure yet also retaining a notable emphasis on melody in spite of the sheer blasting barbarity employed. You could say this is a death metal EP for black/thrash fans, possessing similar musical appeal but within structures and phrasing demonstrating the former genre’s more insidious, particularly structured nature.

Cover image by @Toy_E on twitter.

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