Premiere: Plague Rider – Rhizome
We are pleased to premiere the extra-dimensional time-space distorting fuckery of Plague Rider‘s newest. Hit play and please ignore the sound of your brain matter turning to a fetid grey slurry.
One of the core problems I find increasingly prominent with innovation or progression in metal (or perhaps more accurately how the public defines it) is how it’s at once incredibly eclectic in terms of the emphasis on diverse influence and supposedly iconoclastic boundary breaking practices yet in practice often becomes incredibly narrow in focus and subsequently pedestrian in end result. Death metal after the classic period is perhaps the finest example of a genre searching fervently for some new way to stay relevant and combat stagnation after the colossal growth spurt from 1989 to 1993 wherein the genre expanded, reinvented, and rejuvenated itself multiple times in a single year and resulted in one of the most fertile, multifaceted periods in metal history.
A number of styles would rise to prominence after 1995 and each one attempted to focus on a few specific characteristics of the genre; brutal death metal wanted to up the raw pugilism and power of syncopated percussive rhythms and technical death metal seeked to explore the possibilities offered by a wider range of harmony and instrumental capacity. Once even melodic death metal would have been a fairly forward-thinking area of exploration but all three in how it pioneered and opened up the raw possibilities of consonance but by the turn of the millennium, all three of these styles had mostly been atrophied and reduced to solely to exaggerations of their titular characteristics. Reheated 80’s tropes from traditional/power and thrash metal, unintentionally self-parodying scatterbrained chugthuggery, and a self-referential grab bag of poorly implemented technique and flashy if ultimately insubstantial and superficial garnishing attached to slapdash songwriting were what each one would become respectively.
The Sepulcrustacean of ten or so years ago would say at this point that the “old school” and dissonant death metal movements saved the day by giving as both what we loved about the genre’s olden days and granting us the future Gorguts and Immolation promised us. However these movements were far from spotless. The return of the classic sound meant a lot of bands basically making warmed over odes to past greatness and burying those trying to create a distinct voice from classic teachings lost awash of sea of Swedeath clones worship bands. The dissonant movement, once transgressive in broadening death metal’s tonal vocabulary and deconstructing then-ironclad genre norms, became so enamoured of its now somewhat familiar nature it devolved a vague, riffless goop of meandering post-metal aimlessness and mathcore-esque “skronking” atonality-for-its-own-sake. Perhaps as a response to the shortcomings and decay of both (along with the “cavernous” style; don’t think I forgot you Portal), two distinct styles emerged that offered a different path forwards.
They don’t have any proper name in the press yet but I’ve come to call them the psychedelic and eldritch styles respectively. Both simultaneously abstract and reinforce the idea of death metal but they differ in terms of the angle they approach. Psych-death like Temisto, Obliteration, Diskord, later Morbus Chron, and Cult of the Head tend to infuse more conventional rock or even classic metal elements but pervert them into a bizarre and often structurally ambiguous death metal context, corroding them under waves of drugged-out harmonies and misshapen bending riffs. The eldritch school’s practitioners on the other hand go for a strange melange of dissonance, melody, and atonality, frequently working challenging and varied rhythms into spiralling explorations of contrast and comparison in counterpoint guitar configurations, grandiose and ominous spaciousness, and very particularly articulate and ever shifting tonality. Blood Incantation is the best known of these but Ghoulgotha, Zealotry, VoidCeremony, Undersave, Unaussprechlichen Kulten, and StarGazer are also worth attention.
Now we can add the UK’s utterly mind boggling and highly uncomfortable Plague Rider to both categories. Beginning as a thrashy tech-tinged death metal band in 2013, two years later they would re-emerge as an unrecognizably warped series of noisy, punishing, and blatantly un-melodic madness encased in rough, violent structures. Come 2018 and they have furthered delved into the whirlpool of madness of death metal’s ever widening experimental frontier, unleashing a four song EP that takes the genre to some of the most otherworldly abysses both within its festering consciousness and without.
Seemingly intent on making later Gorguts sound like Iron Maiden by comparison, Plague Rider’s sound utilizes the impressive instrumental talents of the band members to contort and distort a fairly technical and semi classic baseline into a vast and tortured landscape, taking an almost nihilistic and uncaring abstraction of the genre and infesting it with layers of nuanced instrumentation before filtering it through consciousness-distorting experiments that almost run the risk of devolving into pure schizophrenic noise. It’s a deliberately inaccessible sound laced with a bare minimum of quasi “normal” death metal akin to a few badly damaged life rafts being tossed out to survivors of a cruise ship’s sinking. More importantly, on a purely technical level, they’ve implemented their influences in such a way it generally does come off as avant-garde in how it takes something from outside the genre and uses it to restructure and reshape it. This is perhaps most notable in the addition of Rob Woodcock who on Metal Archives is listed as handling “noise” and “circuit bending”. Personally, I’m not exactly familiar with that kind of instrumentation but many of the EP’s more chaotic and feverish moments tend to have a grating, reverberating quality to them I don’t think was solely achieved with conventional pedals and effects. Sometimes you can hear its skitterish sounds calling out in the background like the skin-tingling calls of some sort of alien insectoids hidden from sight, others a backwash of static standing like a monstrous mirrored reflection of a scurrying bassline, both frequencies standing violently opposed to one another and your eardrums. In spite of how jam packed each song is, this aspect of their sound never becomes gimmicky or overbearing, integrated smoothly almost to the point where you might not notice it if you can’t look past the wall of audio terror they so easily create.
In spite of it the alienating and crowded nature of their sound, Plague Rider are surprisingly good at writing longer numbers. The album’s opener and closer both click in seven and nine and a half minutes respectively. In spite of that, the lengthiness of these tracks lets them explore a very wide range of ideas and allows them to have sufficient room to breathe. This doesn’t exactly make them easy listens (you have to be either very, very used to this kind of nauseating extremity or a dedicated masochist) but it does make deceptively cohesive. “Challenger’s Lecture” is like some skeletal colossus covered in patches of flesh each with a mind of their own. Comprised of numerous shuddering riffs, this psychotic opener lets a simple sounding tremolo riff gradually lead into a chaotic series of echoing reverberations and murky morasses as it gradually paints a bigger and bigger picture of something horribly wrong and larger than you’d imagine. Every new iteration of a riff either helps move the song and set up for less conventionally shaped riffs to emerge, dipping in and out of quasi-conventionality with unsettling layered effects and increasingly deformed guitar lines. This culminates in a washed-out haze of droning bass guitar imprisoning primordial echoing chords as the song reaches a final entropic state.
“Without Organs” goes even further from the get-go, featuring processed monastic chant over disjointed if sharply picked notes but whatever strange comforts that provided doesn’t stay for long. A self-mutilating flood of speeding, churning, and otherwise bewildering riffs and string-sliding deformity arrives to remind you not to have let your guard down before introducing us to one of the album’s few obviously melodic segments – a few sustained chords that lead into furious black metal style blasting climaxing with a solo. At least, until the song tosses itself back into a rancid feeding frenzy of shorter, sharper riffs that leave the rest of it a quiet, desiccated, and eventually cleanly played husk. While their sound is far from what we might call graceful, there’s a finesse in knowing how to create these bizarre conversations between all their instruments and how to warp them into cohesive, ever-evolving soundscapes… at least when the songs need to be over six minutes.
What holds the EP back are the two shorter tracks between the epics. It’s an issue of songwriting in this case with all the building blocks being there but the actual building isn’t fully complete. They are much faster and to the point and demonstrate their coordination as musicians perhaps the best on the album with lots of sharp changes in tempo and style, leading to a highly jam-packed sound. Unfortunately this also means that there’s less room to breathe and explore themselves thematically. “Stagnation Cult” comes first with a merry-go-round of hydra-headed riffing that can go between weirdly dance-y sounding Cynic-esque angular leads and pummeling blunt-end chords but the song never truly resolves the sheer conflict and tension between them; the short break around halfway through simply is too little and by the time the repetition sets in after, the impetus and energy has been lost. “Toil” fares a bit better, opening with a war metal/grindcore level of intensity before breaking off into a widening series of dissonant chords and a wandering pseudo-melody. They do ride on it to near the end of the track, climaxing it before returning to the opening riffs but it feels like the song could have been longer and that one theme explored and expanded on with how mystifying it was.
Thankfully even if the songcraft falters at these moments, the actual instrumentation is at its finest hour. Special credit must be given to bassist Lee Anderson for his ridiculously prominent playing. It was already hinted at back on Horrified’s Allure of the Fallen from last year but here he’s playing the kind of busybody basslines we’d normally expect of Sadus or even Pavor albeit without the wacky almost nonsensical counterpoint arrangements. There’s very few moments where he isn’t frenzied with terrifying spider-finger speed or working out shimmering harmonies like swarms of bioluminescent locusts. At times it’s almost too much to take in with how he can compliment practically anything the guitar throws out, sometimes sounding like the actual lead instrument. Completing the rhythm section is Matt Henderson whose jittery, shuddering performance plays a vital role in the band’s highly disturbing sound. His performance is marked by a number of quick, nifty cymbal accents notable when the riffs start piling atop one another but he’s more than capable of sending almost haphazard sounding rolls tumbling out from the wake of the psychotic, twitching motions of their songwriting.
In retrospect, Jake Bielby perhaps isn’t writing riffs as much as he’s transcribing the terrifying noises of extradimensional space eating alien speak to his guitar with a mastery of writing these weird, looming, open-string chords that stretch out over the horizon like a diseased, polluted skyline. His riffs rarely resolve themselves with any kind of more conventionally meaty or melodic notation instead choosing to use a lot of almost mathcore torturous phrasings and jutting, coiling lead patterns that give the album an aura of sickening unpleasantness. Finally, I would like to know if James Watts is actually a person any more or simply a fleshpuppet being used by the previously described inhuman monstrosities as there’s very uncomfortable things he does with his voice; hellish screams with such a wet, rancid tone you wouldn’t be wrong in thinking there’s something living *in* his larynx assisting him. He primarily goes for a mid to higher register approach like a crust/grind vocalist having his vocal cords torn open without anaesthesia, using lower ranges only a few specific occasions. At times his voice partially melds with the blurred guitar and weirdo electronics of Rob, resulting in something like the world’s most disgusting Power Rangers-esque transforming robot cut-scene.
Personally I would like to see the band either focus on longer nuanced tracks or improving on their ability to connect disparate ideas into proggy, spacious narratives within the context of two to five minute songs. As previously stated, the problem is less of their technique which for the most part is quite creative and overwhelmingly vomit inducing (as intended) but at times like on “Stagnation Cult” the bare-bones simplicity of their songcraft feels like it doesn’t do the aesthetic justice. In the other case of “Toil”, they find very interesting ideas but don’t really capitalize on them. The main issue in both is that these songs too quickly return to the riffs that began them rather than exploring and building on them with successive iterations and thematic additions, something the longer tracks do incredibly well. Still, they clearly have the raw technical talent to make convincingly and genuinely alien extreme metal and even down to their production which does a tremendous job of separating each instrument and making them sound echoing and wormy. They mostly need to work on both the connective tissue that holds together great extreme metal and resolve the hellish sense of conflict that defines their shorter tracks. If you can look past those flaws, you will find perhaps western Europe’s most ambitious death metal band of the last five years, one on the cusp of completely deforming everything we know about a genre in the midst of a period of great experimentation and evolution.