Hateful – Set Forever On Me

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In the tech death eclipse.

Technical death metal has long since grown a reputation in many circles for being little more than a self-indulgent cesspool of overcomplicated note-spewing and emaciated powerless riffing. This is a stereotype that many, myself included, have held for a very long time and while it isn’t correct, it isn’t hard to see why it became so popular. Many of the genre’s biggest names focused less on ferocity and atmosphere and instead attempted to meld more highbrow musical technique into the repertoire of a genre that was then rapidly pushing the extremes of many of its frontiers, for better and for worse.

It would take on a diverse number of forms that oftentimes fused into various other styles and subgenres; brutal death hybrids are the most common and other times it joined with grindcore or mathcore, melodic death metal, and in some cases even black metal. Now I’m a believer in Sturgeon’s law and I won’t pretend it is plentiful pickings as far as quality goes but the same could be said for practically any other genre. At the same time, because how much it has diversified, eventually you will find something that appeals to your particular tastes. In this case, it was the veteran Italian band Hateful who are slated to release their third album since their 2010 debut fairly soon.

Hateful dates back to 1997, in the early days of technical death metal’s codification, back when the genre was still a disparate bunch of experimental and frequently unusual acts that didn’t follow many of the now familiar tropes of the genre. They would release a pair of demos then a split from 2000 to 2006 around which the genre exploded in popularity and influence, taking on the shapes many revere and revile today in equal measure.  When they finally released a studio album, they made it clear they were not exactly in line with many of the genre stalwarts. Coils of a Consumed Paradise is defined by short snappy songs and compact, tightly clustered riffing rapidly evolving with little of the pompousness native to this subgenre. Their musicianship while a little shaky at points was used for the purpose of a relentless delivery of carefully shaped riffing sent off with a gun-volley ruthlessness.

Rapidly developing songs, filled with enough ideas to craft two or three more tracks, have defined them since and on 2013’s Epilogue of Masquerade. This became even clearer with a stronger production job and a newfound tenacity contrasted by a wider range of harmonies and melodic phrasing, creating one of the strongest technical death metal albums since the genre’s inception as they wedded ruthless American death metal fury with laser precise (though thankfully not overbearing) musicianship.

After a slightly less lengthy wait than the one for the first album, Hateful has unleashed a third album that builds additional layers of complexity yet still retains their signature streamlined delivery. While it was hinted at on prior works, Set Forever On Me is by and far their most melodic work to date, building on their combination of Millennium-era Monstrosity fretboard wizardy and Breeding the Spawn style Suffocation militant precision with gorgeous harmonies branching out at various junctions in these sprawling riff chains. This helps to contrast the surgical intensity of Massimo Vezzani and Daniele Lupidi with moments of smoother and more open-ended melodic character, placing it closer to turn of the millennium technical death metal like Spawn of Possession or Necrophagist.

Thankfully both guitarists avoid their pitfalls and excesses, utilizing this emphasis on higher register notation as aggressively as they do their riffing, adding a wider range of colour to their sonic palette. It is evocative of Disincarnate, Atheist, and even recent Blood Incantation albeit stripped away of most of the extravagance, strategically placed to juxtapose the roller-coaster twisting-dipping-and-climbing song motions with less dense needling riffing contrasting the meat of the songs or digressions into more emphatic carefully picked melodies dancing around one another in choice moments of fretboard ballet.

Many of its finest moments are when Daniele and Massimo play off of one another with all the dueling intricacy normally native to flashier classic heavy metal but re-tooled for an extreme context. The two have a talent for phrases that at times feel a bit sparse by today’s standards but interlock and weave into one another for moments of highly rewarding polyphony that are just complex enough to be wowing yet intuitive enough to easily follow, sometimes even getting the bass guitar to join in. They’re placed cleverly to serve almost like rewards for enduring the incessant, tightly coordinated onslaughts of their punchier riffing, resolving and then expanding on what they had been building up to in these compact exchanges between the two.

In spite of how much they have improved since the band’s early days, don’t be fooled into thinking this is just the Lupidi-Vezzani fireworks show. Drummer Marcello Malagoli has improved every bit to the same degree as his fellow band mates and with a wider range of tempo and pacing comes also the band’s most varied drumming performance yet. Marcello’s style is probably still the most Suffocation influenced aspect of the band’s sound with the love of steady charging rhythms Mike Smith, Doug Bohn, and Dave Culross pioneered on their legendary 1991 to 1998 run. Despite that one would be foolish to call him a clone of the these three giants as he builds on the ever-ruthless aggression with a wider range and higher volume of fills, fleshing out the steady onslaught with tom-terrorizing, cymbal-slamming mastery whether it’s in his signature high-speed blink-and-miss-it fills or longer, rumbling motions that occasionally sound like they threaten to keel the whole band over with their winding intensity.

He has a great grasp of how to build up to these explosive displays, capable of ruthless single-minded intensity but never truly bound to it. There’s more moments that subtly emphasize particular cymbal patterns, spicing up more straightforward moments with their whispery tones at times almost like a second rhythm stealthily working above the normal jackhammer onslaught of his drumming. Marcello is more straightforward sounding than say, Jamie Saint Merat (Ulcerate) or Charlie Koryn (VoidCeremony, Ghoulgotha, Ascended Dead), but from his no-nonsense onslaught comes a visceral consistency and from that, a powerful sense of propulsive, violent motion that carries the album through much of its rapidly mutating complexity.

Assisting this is not only a fuller production with a stronger bottom end, away from the sand-blasted dehydrated sound of the predecessor for one that highlights the melodies and higher register notation with far more vividness and clarity along with adding a greater sense of weight even to the lead guitar exchanges. The bass in particular sounds considerably clearer and more resonant in the mix, pulsing beneath the guitar work while the drumming benefits greatly from a greater degree of separation from the rest of the instruments. This additional layer of bottom end partially compensates for the less ruthless, bristling guitar tone, giving the album more of a toned, heavily syncopated underlying pulse throughout its high-speed ventures.

The guitar as said before is a bit less vivid and high up in the mix this time around but it has more of a dense, hearty sound in this mix, forsaking the cracklier sound of its predecessor for one that at once sounds somehow murkier but also more resolutely thick. As a whole it is a proper, clear sound although it might not saw away at your ears as hard as its excellent predecessor. On the plus side, it lets all the nitty gritty details emerge with a smoothness to them that sits between a cleaner modern sound and a more muscular oldschool production.

For all its complexity, Set Forever On Me doesn’t necessarily require you to study every inch of it to really get behind it. Even as the most dextrously demanding of all three albums, the band is carried primarily by their strength in excellent riffing, pacing, and carefully fitted drum work. It’s well executed enough you don’t always notice how much has transpired until you slow it down and break it apart piece by piece. Hateful’s melodies play a larger role not just in the guitar work but also the organization of these songs, bordering on the extent of earlier melodic death metal albeit without the proto-black metal undertones. These songs focus on presenting and developing a melody through a particularly memorable riff then working it through a wide number of iterations. Phrasings vary from dense and hammering riffing to more airy and agile ones, additional harmonies are layered over and across, and earlier ideas return to centre a song.

Other times sudden breaks in the New York traffic cramped levels of riffing allow newer melodic ideas to emerge and breathe, momentarily shifting away to fill out new dimensions of melody and oftentimes to form satisfying, glorious resolutions smoother in their phrasing compared to the claustrophobic, tightly stacked riffing beneath. This combo of sharp variation of a core theme contrasted by wholly new ideas, set across a wide range of riffing ideas and pacing, gives their music this sense of constant change and movement, almost entirely stripped of any indulgence or “wank” as some would call it. This gives a sense of speed derived less so from the actual tempos of the tracks but moreso on how many riffing ideas they go through in a constantly unfolding sense of metallic storytelling, constantly working through and developing their ideas until they reach their conclusions, often so smooth sometimes a new song begins just as you realize the last one ended.

It could be argued that technical death metal for all of its enlightened musical aspirations ended up becoming the kind of mundane music it once portrayed itself as an antithesis to. Regardless of whether or not you believe it has been condemned by its own tunnel vision to become more about filling out its own tropes, it’s hard to deny that in the subgenre’s heyday it was every bit as driven, powerful, and immense in its funereal vision as any other form death metal as a whole could take. Hateful is a showcase of all of its strengths, creating music where its technicality is not the starting point but simply the byproduct of constantly unfolding and heavily detailed songcraft. Set Forever On Me’s songs feel like they could work if they weren’t as laser precise or strictly demanding (or if they weren’t even in this subgenre) simply because their rapidly sense of growth and development are held together by an excellent sense of melody and an excellent sense of ebb and flow, creating songs that are as memorable as they are sprawling.

As their commendable musicianship is second to the processes by which these songs play out, it avoids the common subgenre problem of being as flashy and ear-catching if simply unsatisfying and insubstantial once more closely examined. Every little detail builds up the bigger picture and the consistently energetic pacing refuses to settle into any comfortable hooks or patterns; a constantly engaging, merciless onslaught on your senses. Recommended for fans of not only the previously mentioned bands but also Psycroptic, Mephistopheles (Australia), early Gorguts, Coroner, Anata, Cryptic Shift, older Cynic, Profanity (Germany), Augury, and Cerebrum.

Set Forever On Me releases on September 25th. You can preorder it now on Transcending Obscurity’s bandcamp.

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