Funeral Chant – Dawn of Annihilation

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Neither Mercy Nor Murkiness

In the last couple years there’s been growing discontent with the direction the modern “OSDM” movement has been moving in. The style which originated as an underdog opposed to the perceived overly clean sterility of the various brutal, technical, melodic, and other such styles that emerged in the aftermath of the classic era. In 2021, you could argue that the tables have arguably turned with the face of the genre now defined by bands like Skeletal Remains, Gatecreeper, Undergang, Entrails, Outer Heaven, Frozen Soul, and so on.

For some this was a long-awaited triumph but for others it came with the loss of the then-revolutionary fiery impetus that carried the movement in its initial stages. It is becoming harder to deny that the term “Old School Death Metal” has gradually become associated with increasingly narrow interpretations of the otherwise vast, expansive early ’90s death metal movement. Midtempo groove-chugs, caveman jock-stomp, reverb-drenched pseudo-nostalgia (for an era where many were toddlers)—we could say a lot of death metal has become not just a false reflection of the past but a very comfortable one devoid of the barbarity and unhinged mayhem that often characterized that era’s most memorable. Some would place the blame on the influx of fans from hardcore/crust and other such punk styles that often find themselves adjacent to death metal. While I don’t think this narrative is entirely without some merit, I don’t think it entirely explains the problem.

After all, the subject of today’s review got much of its start playing a fusion of death metal and crust punk. Before they were Funeral Chant, the majority of the band could be heard in Dead Man and some fragments of the blasphemous malevolence that would define them can be heard in a looser form. Four years after 2013’s The All Too Well Known, Funeral Chant would debut with an excellent EP of riotous black/death that was a far cry from their later sound, though not entirely deprived of their already raw, gnarly roots. The blunt intensity and sawing strum action of Dead Man had been retooled, implemented in a manner more disciplined and pointed in its viciousness. Sustained torrential rushes of blunt tremolo riffing were chained together with lengthy, swirling melodies for a sound as cruelly barbaric as it was eerily melodic.

There’s an interesting coincidence here with an actually-from-the-late-’80s-and-early-’90s death metal band, Sweden’s Grotesque, whose guitarist Alf Svensson had a crust punk background in Oral. For his stint in the former band, the crust influence perhaps didn’t entirely disappear in spite of the overall lack of similarities between both bands. Instead it had been absorbed into the context of both barbed-wire ripping riffing and lengthy, intricately woven melodies of a blackened nature that find their lineage in the arcane tremolo sorceries of bands like Slayer and Chile’s Pentagram.

Of course, Funeral Chant is not a sonic reincarnation of that Swedish band. Drummer Cruel Force makes it clear that he wished for the band to pick up where Texas’ Necrovore left off in 1987 with their legendary Divus de Mortuus demo and it shows in their incessant, Sarcofago-raw sonic assault. Grotesque didn’t seem to have too much of that band’s scraping, jagged riffing in exchange for far more fluid, arguably semi-technical riffing. In stark contrast to much of the “OSDM” today, Funeral Chant doesn’t reach back to the early ’90s but the carnage of the late ’80s when the very first strains of death metal had barely finished emerging from the protoplasmic soup of thrash. It was a time of barely held together madness not just of the Morbid Angel demos and those legendary Texans but lesser known but no less horrific monstrosities like Bloodspill (Texas), Mutilated (France), Necrodeath, Fatal (Detroit), Exmortis, Hellpreacher, Tormentor (Mexico), and Georgia/Tampa’s Incubus.

Essentially derived from the earliest American-thrashy style death metal (something far too unclean and ugly to achieve any commercial success in the early ’90s), Dawn of Annihilation severely reduces the black metal influence of the S/T in exchange for shorter, rippier riffing and far more chaotic interaction between riffs. Bereft entirely of HM2 overdriven buzz, midtempo Bolt Thrower jog rhythms, or comfortably friendly caveman chuggery, Dawn of Annihilation recaptures a sense of merciless intensity sidestepping nearly all death metal developments made since 1987 for a sound that is atavistic in its goals yet refreshing in its clarity.

Previously Funeral Chant’s riffing was of a very streamlined style, almost but not quite reminiscent of more cavernous bands such as Demoncy, Grave Miasma, and Ritual Chamber in their usage though they never fully settled into the same sort of ambience those bands would. A lot of these riffs felt less lengthy than they really were due to their excellent use of linking them together in longer sequences with highly expressive melodies. Said melodies had an almost proto-melodic death metal character in the Alf Svensson era At The Gates sense (coincidentally two central Grotesque members ended up in that band) though they were far from being the overwhelming focus.

In Dawn of Annihilation the riffs have become far shorter with the rhythmic topography featuring far more jutting, ripping edges and fragmented delivery. Rather than focusing on a sense of semi-hypnotic atmosphere, guitar snakes and leaps with carnivorous ferocity. The melodies that defined them are more implicit than explicit on average, frequently embedded into these rhythms as they race alongside the even-faster single foot blast heavy percussion.

This blistering arsenal of mayhem is accompanied by a greater degree soloing in a Sadistic Intent sense that casually moves between consonant and dissonant phrasing, playing a larger role in helping to delineate song structures. The overall delivery is better grounded with the sort of animalistic viciousness associated with bands like Degial, Vorum, Concrete Winds, and Invidious (the first three of which I know they are all big fans of).

What gives them such distinguishing character is that in spite of even its slower moments being at best marginally less menacing, Dawn of Annihilation is unusually melodic for this style. It’s not something too overt initially and they never fall back on Iron Maiden/Metallica or Dissection/Slaughter of the Soul tropes either but something expressed moreso as a byproduct of the riffing style—streamlined and rapid yet using these melodies to wave traceable patterns that morph, mutate, and deform throughout these fractured, frenzied songs. It is melody expressed through riffs that dig, rip, and tunnel ravenous and wormlike often assisted by simple harmonies, hovering disconnected from any obvious rhythmic/percussive references such as palm mutes or ringing doom chords. It is visceral in its delivery but anxiety-inducing and even somewhat supernatural in practice.

Compositionally this album also finds itself closer to the earlier strains of death metal. The EP focused on progressively developing an idea through an unfolding series of differing riffs. The album has more repetition but the chaotic dialogue between recombinant and emergent themes results in a dynamic that allows for a higher level of consistent intensity. Shoving the listener back and forth between the unfamiliar and the familiar, songs work through small cyclic chains of riffs broken apart by the emergence of concisely chaotic soloing. Rather than being where songs climax, these are often used to build anticipation and the need for resolution, something handled by excursions into sharply contrasting newer riffs often varying the phrasing and speed quite sharply.

There are far more individual “peaks” within songs where the level of violence reaches a near unbearable fever pitch frenzy, even if they technically aren’t throwing that much at you compared to say, Ascended Dead or Ritualization. With the level of intensity being so high, every sharp change whether in tempo, melody, or shape of riff comes off incredibly sharp and pronounced almost as if the song might shift gears entirely for a few short moments. They can be storming forth at breakneck speeds one moment and pausing abruptly for crushing, headbang-inducing chunky chords in the next.

In making the music considerably more immediate, Funeral Chant’s riffing technique has improved considerably since the debut. It benefits in large part due to a production job that while still allowing them to sound like a whirlwind separates each instrument well, something especially beneficial to their melodies. It’s “clean” if only by the incredibly raw standards set by the S/T, resulting in greater clarity that never fully illuminates the twisting, blood-splattered halls of their songwriting. The loss of the greater sense of mounting tension and unfolding narrative from the S/T does mean songs sometimes feel lacking in the same kind of climactic, morose storytelling as before and the melodies on average don’t reach the same heights. Still, this movement towards a sound that is more upfront and direct is far from a bad one but it would be interesting to see if they could bring back the still grounded “atmospheric” elements of the EP for future releases. There are of course various other facets of their sound that could also be explored.

As implied previously, there are elements here that touch on the kind of melody-driven death metal that Grotesque and old At The Gates were touching on from 1990 to 1993 during Alf Svensson’s stint, frequently made clear in the sinister tremolo patterns that comprise the bulk of the album. The interplay between fast and chaotic riffs constantly warring amongst themselves, only for eerie blackened melodies to erupt outwards like vengeful spirits awakened by their conflicts bears some notable similarities to The Red in the Sky is Ours though this is of course far, far less technically minded or avant-progressive. A simplified Liers in Wait on the nightmarishly obfuscating Spiritually Uncontrolled Art also come to mind with the overwhelming onslaught both bands possess. Granted juggling the amount of riffs on a third Funeral Chant release would be a herculean effort for both their notably improved technical capabilities and likely their memory.

While technically far less black metal inclined than its predecessor, many of those ideas still remain in a more first wave black-thrash adjacent form, capturing those distinctly nocturnal melodies yet delivering them frothing-at-the-mouth as opposed to shrouded and mystical. Something similar to Sweden’s Bloodstone could work in this case, in particular 1994’s Branded at the Threshold of the Damned. They too had blackened, thrashy roots emphasizing sinister melodies racing alongside the streamlined evil of blackened, thrashing riffs. Their lengthier song lengths and structures allowed them to explore not only moments of surging barbarity but also slower, bone-grinding tempos and additional melodic variations. It also allowed for them to have more sharply narrative structure similar to the Funeral Chant EP, allowing for that narrative approach while still bristling with bloodthirst and hatefulness. Of course, they could simply ignore these altogether and up the raw level of insanity.

Before a forking path of various tantalizing possibilities, Funeral Chant stand as one of the year’s nastiest and most unhinged death metal bands. In defiance of the tedium that defines so many bands trying to capture the magic of a classic era, Dawn of Annihilation radiates the same monstrous, forbidden power that has mostly been replaced by friendly bloodlust-deprived mosh-filler fare and forced tongue-in-cheek irony posturing. The staunch refusal of demonstrating even a modicum of easy accessibility makes the album difficult to initially understand but the unreal, explosive tenacity is captivating with the understated expertise that went into its creation. Many would say, rightfully so in many cases, that the OSDM movement has become the very trendiness and tedium it was once the answer to. Yet far from simply refusing or ignoring this claim, Funeral Chant crafted the solution sidestepping the usual solutions of simply making the music more respectably clean and squeaky or further turning inwards for short-sighted aesthetic worship.

It puts its money where its mouth is with a riff-based style with barely any moments where it leans into easily abused atmosphere or obvious retro-throwbacks. Lucid clarity and relentless pacing are the order of the day with little care given if the listener is lost in the maelstrom. You’re expected to keep up with the cascading, flesh-shredding intensity and the album massively benefits all the more from this disdain towards coddling the listener. Joining others this year like Kaal Akuma, Incarceration, Oxygen Destroyer, Tempter’s Sacrament, Dungeon Serpent, and Infesticide, this Oakland 4-piece makes it clear that “OSDM” can still be a force of destructive terror. All it needs to do is to stop giving such a shit about living up to a narrow distortion of the past and instead capture the genuine horror and barbarism that made death metal such a force to be reckoned with in the first place.

Four out of five ceremonial tombs converted into waste disposal facilities

Dawn of Annihilation is out now and available for purchase on Bandcamp.

 

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