Return To The Depths: Sepulcrustacean’s Catacomb Ventures Continue
Halloween draws ever closer and the boundary between the living and the dead becomes weak in its transparency. Sepulchral is the season and hopefully, your playlists as well. I imagine you are not coming to this feature looking for now well established classics your friends and record labels have incessantly beaten you over the head with, or you’re sick of seeing advertisements for on social media, forums, and YouTube. Someone has the grim task of exhuming burial grounds both fresh and ancient; the following are some of the more appealing finds from recent grave robberies that deserve far more infamy. Here’s to the dead, the dying, and the creeping unknown.
Blasphemer – On the Inexistence of God (Comatose Music, 2008)
Brutal death metal is a tricky subgenre to get right because of how much of it is already familiar death metal characteristics exaggerated to a degree that is dangerously close to self parody. These Italians didn’t break the mold and if anything sound extraordinarily stereotypical at first but look past the high speed laser-precise chaos and there’s a sense of order rising out of madness. As strange as it might initially seem, melody plays a notable part in their sound, sandwiched between riffs that swarm about with the wing beats per minute of an entire locust swarm. Blasphemer rarely stick to a single riff for very long and just as you think you might get used to a particular riff or theme it splits off into another two or three but these aren’t random interjections. Each one mirrors and carries on one part of a particular melody or upper register motif which they use to both stabilize and explore, working through its multiple permutations of amidst a tornado of activity. It’s a lot to take in given that they’re around the level of Malignancy when it comes to constant tempo and riff switch-ups though their approach to texturing is closer to Deeds of Flesh up to 2003 with their eye for tremolo heavy melody but at three times the speed. Unfortunately, the vocalist’s range of expression is roughly “OHHWEE OUI OUI UWII!!!” but he at least delivers it with bestial anger, relying on the rest of the music to cover for him by virtue of sheer intensity. For those who like their brutal death to be deliberately structured as well as to not shy away from melody.
Necroven – Primordial Subjugation (Memento Mori, 2016)
The 90’s death metal revival, for all of its vaunted worship of the classics, doesn’t do a terribly great job of representing that era beyond a few particular styles that weren’t all necessarily that prominent back then. That era was more than just Sunlight Studios, Autopsy worship, and “cavern” death after all. Classic American styled death metal (the sort that isn’t in the latter two categories) is unusually rare but Necroven have been toiling since 2011 to ensure the cult of demo-era Goreaphobia, Morpheus Descends, pre-dissodeath Gorguts, Sadistic Intent, and Deteriorot remains strong. They will easily be comparable to Dead Congregation in their ability to create oppressive, dark death metal that sounds like a mixture of Incantation’s magma-like tremolo flow and Morbid Angel’s occult fretboard work and harmonic sensibility, but don’t think any of them are in the same categories as Grave Miasma or Portal. Necroven are a very riffy band as opposed to one that focuses on textured ambience and even at the relentless pacing of their songs, balance out multiple types of riffing from blockier thudding chords forming fragmented pseudo melodies to racing tremolo drilling laced with snaking upper-register harmonies as alien and weirdly hypnotic as the recent Finnish death metal revivalists. There’s a lot going on in each song but it’s executed in such a powerful, sweeping manner with songs using just light amount of repetition. Like Cruciamentum they use a mixture of paired riffing giving way to extended ladder-like structures wherein various riffs connected in lengthy sequence in a mixture of repetition and narrative development, giving the album an “epic” sense of scope without becoming overblown and fluttery. There’s quite a bit of eerie quasi-Immolation-esque coiling harmonies, perhaps closer to the Sadistic Intent practice of weird, bendy notes that sounded like some bizarre, twisted mockery of 70’s guitar god exuberance and they’re used fairly prominently less to section off songs as “that solo part” as much as they are to advance and climax a particular motif and to help segue into new themes. It’s rather short at 35 minutes and seven songs but not a second is wasted, even on the doomy interlude-esque track and what at first sounds like a slow, toned down closing track but there’s not a second wasted, even for the few short intros some of the tracks possess. One of 2016’s finest.
Surofhest – Blessed Hatred (Zoo Sound, 2004)
At the turn of the millennium technical death metal was condensing into a form obsessed with virtuoso shredding, stop-and-go rhythms, relentless blasting, and the sort of navel-gazing showmanship mostly meant to cover up a lack of memorable composition or compelling riffing. However it is in Turkey of all places that Surofhest decided to go against the grain with sadly no international audience to experience it. This four piece band played a generally mid-paced variant of the sub-genre emphasizing its more surreal qualities, putting themselves in the region of bands like Karnak (Italy), Mass Psychosis, Wicked Innocence, and Demilich. Tremolo lines curl and unfurl in winding semi-dissonant patterns, playing almost yet not quite the same thing for a subtle echoing effect, over shuddering percussion incessantly twitching with jerky fills that emerge abruptly and scuttle away just as quickly as they stab into dominant rhythmic patterns. At times they dip into morasses of atonality seemingly to utterly bewilder the listener before pulling from the stinking pile some bizarrely paced chords that crunch and twist like some horrific many-legged insect caught in a pair of tweezers. The songs aren’t necessarily that complex in terms of structuring, creating a set of textures and branching off to elaborate on particular riffs before cycling back to recontextualize established ones but with the constantly creeping and shuddering nature of their music, it does a solid job of throwing curveballs towards the listener even though I wish they could do more. You can’t really find this anywhere beyond Russian file sharing sites but if you want some trippy, perplexing tech death with a strong early 90’s vibe, the likes of which is only really being done by say, Returner, then see if you can hunt this one down.
Amen Corner – Jachol Ve Tehilá (Cogumelo Records, 1995)
“Slow” and “South American black metal” are typically not words you would use in the same sentence but here we are with a band that was moreso from the camp of Varathron and early Samael than it was Sarcofago and Reencarnacion. Essentially a “black doom” band, Amen Corner’s sound is slow and ponderous, requiring both a lengthy attention span and a love for deliberately paced grandeur. While the bands I compared it to earlier are associated with devilry and occult obscurity, Amen Corner come off as triumphant and invigorating in a way not typically associated with first wave style bands. It’s not really “dark” and oppressive as they work through gently arching melodies that speak like some mighty conquering tyrant over sturdy, marching riffs that when combined, emanate raw strength and determination in a quasi-Manowar esque fashion. The album takes the long way around with slowly building intensity, gradually altering riffing to maintain the steady advance through a mixture of repetition and low-key shifts in technique. While it avoids verse-chorus structure, it’s not exactly complex either but the songs have a vivid clarity with them as their minimalism allows them to stress and home in on particular details such as a simple but effective lead break or sometimes semi-catchy cadences that help provide variety and forcefulness. These normally humble techniques would be of little interest by themselves but within the context of this album give it a massive, warlike vibe that can rival any overblown keyboard section or backing orchestras. For those who like to fistpump to their black metal on their way to pillage a city rather than pose over sacrificed virgins in snowy forests.
Fatal – A Somber Evocation of Nihilism (Thrash Records, 1990)
The early 90’s were death metal’s most virulent years as it began to shed its black, punk, doom, and thrash roots and move into territory of its own. However it’s almost a period where quite a few bands went for some rather off-the-rails ideas that never really picked up traction, leaving a number of interesting demos and albums that could’ve changed genre history with more exposure. Sometimes these early genre models would prove successful years later, albeit in different forms. Michigan’s Fatal serve as a good example, essentially playing a mixture of early thrashy death metal but overlaid with technical touches and heavy/power/speed metal style melodies reminiscent of Attacker or Liege Lord. Essentially, this is the same concept of modern melodeath with all of its catchy lead playing and crunchy rhythms that are practically thrash but differs from the usual disposable Slaughter of the Soul offspring and Arch Enemies with its rigid method of riff juxtaposition and angular structuring of Americans like Malevolent Creation and Monstrosity. There’s a fair share of thrashiness to the riffing akin to Destruction and Num Skull which gives it a surprisingly sturdy backbone to stand with as well as to serve as the connective tissue linking together lead forays that would not be out of place on Helstar’s Nosferatu. They can be rather abrupt in how they play their trad metal past and formative extreme metal aggression against one another, sometimes attempting to using gloomy minor key doom segments or acoustic intros and interludes to glue them together, and it’s hard to tell whether it’s actually working. However, it’s definitely an interesting listen and these guys would’ve been huge if they had major label support. This demo is also included on their Retrospective From Hell compilation from 2005.
Exmortis – Darkened Path Revealed (Necroharmonic Productions, 2011)
Alongside Necrovore, Texas’ Bloodspill, and Georgia’s Incubus, Maryland’s Exmortis were among the first wave of death metal bands to move away from the genre’s thrash metal roots into something more savage and less friendly to mainstream audiences drunk on Metallica and Slayer. The material comprising much of the earlier portions of this compilation, dated from 1988 and 1989, is carried heavily by a sheer recklessness and bloodthirst nearing South Americans like Graf Spee and Mutilator. It’s less formative in how it makes use of death metal’s interlocking riff geometry and background buzz texture drilling riffs in primitive structures that while sounding near improvised at times, demonstrated a move away from the last fragments of more conventional rock inspired songwriting that the thrash genre hadn’t fully expunged. However in the second half, containing material from 1991 and 1994, the band’s sound shifts considerably due to it being reduced to a single member, Brian Werking. While the fast post-Slayer/Destruction inspired sections are still there, an increasingly willingness to use slower Celtic Frost style doomy crunch adds a greater range of depth and dynamic intensity to their songwriting, something the overdriven treble-heavy production and rough drum machine sound add to considerably. While much of the riffing is still fairly late 80’s in character, the structures they’re placed in are considerably less abrupt and demonstrate perhaps a familiarity with the more rigid and labyrinthine direction American death meal was headed towards as time passed. It’s an interesting and fairly subtle juxtaposition of formative larval state death metal and a familiarity with the practices of the time. Recommended for those who want something as nasty as NWN backed grindy black metal but with the songwriting and razor-edged riffing of the first death metal bands to truly separate the genre from its thrash and punk roots.
M.A.R.T.Y.R. – Improved Misery (Independent, 1994)
Poland may now be known for minigun speed death metal but in the early 90’s it was a festering sore for all kinds of extremity, some of which hearkened to the most ancient kind of extreme metal. M.A.R.T.Y.R. in particular played an absurdly slow, chunking kind of death/doom maybe just slightly faster than Thergothon and Skepticism but focusing even more on the temple crushing downstroke heaviness than either of them in a way perhaps slightly reminiscent of the first Cathedral album, albeit incidentally. Their sound is incredibly sparse, primitive to a level that would almost be funny if it wasn’t so damn morbid. The riffs basically are the sort that would be right at home on Hellhammer‘s Satanic Rites or maybe Apocalyptic Raids but reduced to a mere fraction of their original speed and given a bigger emphasis on thundering, chunky chords. Meanwhile, vocals are a deranged, half gurgled shout almost but not quite human in its distant, deranged calls and occasionally contrasted by a kind of clean chanted voice that adds a perverse quasi-serenity to this hellish mess. Unusually for this style is the fact that there’s actually quite a few individual riffs in each song. The simplicity of the technique doesn’t stop them from having constantly evolving songs that gradually illuminate themselves through transitions into breaks from the ritualistic procession of their rhythms, gradually letting stripped down melodies hang and drift once prior filth has washed away. Fans of Winter’s Into Darkness and funeral doom who wish the subgenre was much filthier and stripped of all artsiness or highbrow pretense will savour this.