Groundbreakers: Incantation‘s Onward to Golgotha

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How feeble thy man hast come forth unto us
To thine blessed land
Provoking his crucifixion
Thus to endure the reality of everlasting damnation

And thus, one of the most destructive albums in death metal history begins, a simple and mocking observation belying the horrific reality of encountering the forefather of much of the filth, degeneracy, and funereal damnation that now pervades the genre perhaps even moreso than it did in its heyday. Along with Immolation and Suffocation, they would form the state’s unholy trinity. The mark they made, like Immolation, wouldn’t truly be felt until around the late 2000’s, while Suffocation would immediately lay the groundwork for a wide variety of often low quality brutal death bands attempting to recapture the same magic. However, of all these bands, they had by far the strongest opening salvo, one whose power only a scant handful have matched since and that in spite of being 26 years old still sounds as fresh as it would have on May 5th of 1992.

Incantation are most commonly associated with what many call “caverncore” or “cavernous” death metal though the term is quite imprecise and often liberally applied to any band with extensive low register tremolo riffing. It’s not hard to hear why many would call Muknal, Altarage, Father Befouled, Paroxsihzem, and Void Meditation Cult clones of this band; it’s undeniable they’ve been influenced by that particular brand of storming power chords and frequent drops into slow doom-death territory. Yet what makes Incantation different from those so often accused of cutting and pasting their sound? Even moreso, how did such a reductive and primitive sounding band change death metal as we know it?

The first thing to note is that Incantation’s sound is much more eclectic than you might think. There is not a hint of progressive, avant-garde, or technical pretension but beneath the bestial madness lies an interesting blender of ideas from the nascent years of death metal. Thrash was not among them however; unlike the majority of their compatriots American and international Incantation had more or less completely excised the last shreds of that genre in death metal and with it, anything remotely accessible. The furious blast-lead abstracted riffing of Nuclear War Now! icons Sarcófago and Blasphemy, the abrupt shifts and frenetic madness of Repulsion and Carcass forged grindcore, the primordial structures and broad strokes of decimation painted by late 80’s death metallers such as Necrovore and Incubus, even the doom metal touches of Autopsy or Winter albeit with any comforting throwbacks to 70’s Black Sabbath coldly absent, the surprisingly diverse range of influences that comprise that informed their sound lent them a great degree of versatility and viciousness. It’s hard to notice at first because how well it’s mixed together and it requires carefully breaking them down from a historical standpoint but it only goes to show the talent of the then up and coming four piece.

However, a great band is more than who they’ll rattle off as having been on their playlists in an old paper ‘zine interview. Like many great death metal bands Incantation were great at tying together many seemingly unrelated ideas into logically coherent structures. However, for their time they would not have appeared that way. 1992 was a colossal year for the genre, perhaps its strongest still, and it was defined by bands like At The Gates, Therion, Amorphis, Monstrosity, Dark Millennium, Afflicted, and Cemetary bringing a morbid if refined sense of order that did not so much tame the genre as much as they opened new horizons sometimes quite elaborate and mystical and other times sharply refined to a cutting edge. Along with the debut albums of Fleshcrawl, Cenotaph, Morpheus Descends, and Demigod, Onward to Golgotha chose a path that would unrepentantly rejoice and well in the grime-infested sewers of death metal’s hellish musicality. However, the end result was not a regurgitation of familiar ideas but a distinct way to voice them that made them more than the sum of their parts.

Incantation immediately make it clear they are a very riffy band. Not “droning tremolo notes stretched out over an entire song” ambience like so many of their supposed disciples have turned into a joke but actual jagged, chaotic, crashing waves of frenetic motion that are easily the equal if not the superior of the most blast-heavy bands of the past and present. While tremolo is their primary weapon along with thundering downstroke chords during slower tempos, they arrange their riffs in such a way that it’s hard for any particular one to become dominant and monolithic. The songwriting is best described as fractured with multiple sudden riffs sliding up and down the neck, colliding against one another in angular or almost nonsensical transitions that add to the bewilderment and terror. The album can shift gears on the flip of a dime, jumping between charging blast beats and quickly strummed rhythms over midpaced drumming before dropping into the kind of sonorous and tunnelling dirge sections that are the envy of funeral doom bands before a sudden upper register semi-melodic riff explodes out from behind it. Compared to many attempts at ritualistic, blackened, doomy death metal today this leads to the songs feeling a lot more busybody and packed with a ton of content even if structurally they’re not necessarily cramming that much into each song.

All of these play an important part in songs where a confusing array of riffs crash and break against one another, turning whirling chaos into consistency but breaking it part with newer riffs often introducing additional melody and tempo before they’re swallowed up again amidst the rushing onslaught. In the feverish intensity all of this takes place it can sometimes be hard to miss but there is a sense of order in how they’ll strategically position certain familiar riffs as springboards for abrupt diversions and sudden shifts in a song’s style. It’s random on the surface but a closer examination reveals the particular functions of some riffs to establish ideas and a sense of consistency and others to violently destroy that. It’s death metal not as a series of reticulately arranged riffs but as a nihilistic evocation statement of war showing no mercy to the listener or itself. It’s akin to a feeding frenzy of army ants but rather than dismembering some unlucky mouse or bird, the ants are beset against one another in a violent war of all against all. No single riff is safe for very long and each one tears whatever precedes it apart.

From this twisted mass of blasphemous reverence, many now familiar ideas first reared their head to a hungry audience and many of today’s most reviled and respected genre stalwarts. Their method of turning tremolo riffing from a general technique into a weapon of indiscriminate destruction achieved a black metal like atmosphere through the blurred ambiguous nature of the sickly, rotting textures they created. In its ambiguity, it even became quite versatile and Onward To Golgotha’s many features have frequently been modified to use in a variety of contexts. Groups like Contaminated, Cruciamentum, Ignivomous, and Dead Congregation oftentimes work within a similar framework or bear its mark in other in spite of their distinguishing characteristics, whether it’s Contaminated blending it with the Sunlight Studios buzzsaw assault and even hardcore influenced manic energy of early Scandinavian death metal or Dead Congregation’s sharper phrasings tinted with bending Immolation style harmonies and forlorn melodies behind their militant lock-step coordination. For those inclined towards a slower and more dreadful kind of extremity, it’s not hard to hear how to work their ideas into a death/doom context. Even before their debut album Spectral Voice had managed to transform the berserk terror of this debut album into a kind of necrotic meditation, turning the wild churn into a slow burning tension that guided songs through colossal dirge-like motions. Others like Cavurn and Encoffination have sometimes been likened to Incantation playing in bullet time, letting the simplest of notes ring out as funeral knells and drowning the listener in turgid, glacial layers of hypnotically crushing rhythms.

Quite a few fusions of death and black metal also use this album’s characteristics as part of their compositional framework. While Incantation’s influence on it is often overblown, nobody can deny that “ritualistic” (yes, also known as the “cavernous” ones) groups like Grave Miasma, Mefitic, and Ritual Chamber draw heavily from Onward To Golgotha’s blasphemous innards, taking the near war metal levels of mayhem present and turning it into yawning textures stretching out to mysterious occult depths. While much of that style is heavily flawed, a few bands like them found interesting usages for Incantation style savagery rendered into an ambient form where individual riffs melted into pure texture, morphing and shifting like some kind of sentient fog. Even in some recent war metal such as Vesicant, Diocletian, Necroblood, Abominator, and Martyrvore there are moments that aren’t too far from what was set down in 1992 as a band that drew from the same pool of ideas as early war metal now finding its weaponized abstraction and tendency sharp tempo changes used to contrast and reinforce a sense of horrific and unchained carnage. Further proving its versatility, experimental and dissonant acts find deadly weapons provided to them by Incantation. Mitochondrion, Abyssal, Antediluvian and even the earlier work of Bölzer took the bristling, thorny framework provided to them in the classic works of this band yet melded and morphed it with consciousness-melting experiments in tonality, noisy harmony, and disturbingly otherworldly dissonance now upgraded with a bristling, vengeful armour of impious death metal.

Versatility is the album’s biggest strength and, in that sense, its various characteristics were generally split up and absorbed into the mindset of many of the recent schools of death metal that popped up around the genre’s great resurgence sometime around 2009. Why it would take so long for its influence to become commonplace is hard to understand and I don’t have any hard answers. Personally, I believe that the increasing cross-pollination of death and black metal combined with dissatisfaction towards the sterility of much of the brutal and technical or otherwise showy blast heavy death metal infesting the genre created an oppositional response that wanted to rediscover the impure and unclean roots of death metal. And who else in the classic era had the infernal nature and broad strokes of simple but absurdly expansive riffing loved in black metal but combined with the uncomfortably ever-shifting and multifaceted symphonies of decomposition of death metal? Some might point to American bands like Imprecation, Decrepit, Goreaphobia, Symphony of Grief, Entrapment, Deteriorot, Infester, Desolate, and other contemporaries of theirs. It’s no secret that Incantation’s style wasn’t one that developed in a vacuum and they were part of a particular sound that like them, is having its impact felt over two decades past its heyday. However, few of them released full length albums and fewer still struggled with fully developing their style to the same degree as Onward to Golgotha. For better rather than worse, Incantation have been the flag bearers for this style of death metal from the start but they earned every bit of respect with the unbridled, near boundless energy and purulent, mystifying, and deeply disgusting sense of perversion and foulness leaking out of every pore and pustule of this album.

So as said… thy feeble saviour… is to return… thou only suffer evermore… suffer!

How feeble thy man hast come forth unto Golgotha.

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