Review: Ænigmatum – Deconsecrate

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Strange Occurrences at Shrines Unearthly

The last 10 years or so for death metal can be described in a variety of ways but for the purpose of conciseness, “chaotic” suits best. We witnessed the return of the old school and all the filth it brought, the atmospheric black metal injected explorations of the ritualistic or “cavernous” style, the disorienting genre deconstruction of dissonant style death metal and various others I can’t be bothered to name. That’s not even counting the various subforms all of these inevitably splintered into or other genres and styles that they fused with. One thing to note is that while we’re more used to “throwback” bands, we’re also far more accustomed to those of a more experimental nature.

The seeds that giants such Gorguts and Immolation planted, resulting in the rampant growth of bands like Ulcerate, Abyssal, Convulsing, and Altars resulted in one of the first times that a highbrow style with both mainstream and underground appeal came to prominence and arguably still remains. One could argue that the popularity of a band like Blood Incantation or the now defunct Morbus Chron could be said to owe a large part of their success to much of the death metal fanbase becoming rapidly acclimated for outsider, experimental genre interpretations from this dissonant wave. This isn’t to say we’ve had nothing but smooth sailing, to the contrary if anything. Many of these styles had the problem of gradually becoming about their aesthetics rather than what the aesthetic represented; the ritualistic/cavernous bands turned into semi-ambient background noise, much of old school death metal became a dialed in defeatist set of odes to what once was rather than what could be again, and the dissonant bands simply kept gazing inwards to the point of eyeroll inducing, increasingly narrow self-mystification.

In short, all these styles in their self awareness simply became about being in that style rather than widening the horizons they helped to introduce. One could be harsh enough to essentially call them unintentional self parody at this point but from this fracturing of the death metal genre, a series of bands not bound to simply being flag-bearers for crowded stylistic domains has emerged. Portland’s Aenigmatum (no I’m not going to copy paste Ænigmatum every time) started in 2017 as a fascinatingly idiosyncratic if initially rather flawed band, playing what could generally be thought of as melodic death/black in the pre-Slaughter of the Soul form.

Of course, that is simplifying their sound as a run-through of their short 2019 self-titled revealed an interesting collage of inspirations. A mixture of technical riffing inspired as much by the brainier end of early ’90s Floridian Cynic/Death/Atheist adventurousness as it was the surging power of Dissection-esque blackened melody and carefully retooled older ’80s metal technique keeps much of it refreshingly dynamic in voicings and style. Guitarists Eli Lundgren and Kelly McLaughlin play off of one another almost like The Chasm’s Daniel Corchado and Julio Viterbo, with the latter’s hellish howls bearing a similarly foreboding nature to the former of the Mexicans. Excellently well separated production allowed the rhythm section’s intricacies to come to light with ever-constant thumping basslines from band-juggling maniac Brian Rush. Intricate drumming courtesy of Pierce Williams stands in a stark contrast to his barbarity in Azath, demonstrating an ear for a number of subtleties and evocative, devastating fills.

Granted there were some shortcomings to this album as well. Its pacing is a little awkward at points with its somewhat meandering second track opener, occasionally dipping a little too far into more conventional sugary melodeath tropes, and at times songs feeling like they were wandering about searching for some form of resolution. In its defense, these were very old songs often predating the band and in spite of whatever flaws were on display, simultaneously displayed an ambition and vision far beyond most of their contemporaries. Warp forward to 2020 with the two-track Adorned in Wrath promo-demo and it immediately became clear that they had metamorphosed into a very different creature.

The blackened backdrop of the prior album had enveloped their sound almost entirely and their already impressive technical skills further improved, filling each moment with even more prominent basslines and a more measured yet far more vicious attack. Yet also present was a grandiose yet mournful, gloomy atmosphere at once supernatural in its power and explosively intense in its execution. The melodic aspect of the band further diversified in how it was portrayed, almost psychedelic in its experimentation with more ambiguous, arcane chords and harmonies between bass and guitars, on top of Pierce’s drumming creating a small dimension of its own especially during the midtempo portions. What was promising had been most delivered on but both songs will soon be able to be heard on their sophomore album, the simply titled Deconsecrate.

Both “Despot of Amorphic Dominions” and “Disenthralled” also represent two different facets and album halves of a now formidable act that while arguably still in the melodic death/black metal category, has since morphed into something beyond merely being descendants of the A Mind Confused and Sacramentum lineages. The latter is the more ravenous, embittered intensity that was present on the debut but further fleshed out bristling with far more variety in its tumultuousness and juggling an impressive number of ideas with a practically supernatural fluidity, delivering it in a viciously direct manner. The former by contrast demonstrates a more ambiguous element with the riffing warped and deformed into increasingly less obvious shapes and the structures at once confusingly fragmented but unnervingly unified by arcane threads of theme and concept. The new Aenigmatum is not a wholly unfamiliar creature but it possesses a creativity at least tenfold that of its predecessor whether on its technical front or even the conceptual one.

Of particular note is its greater sense of spaciousness and willingness to use more black metal-esque techniques to communicate both a greater sense of variety in the harmonies as well as to present new opportunities for bass guitar to weave and guide rapidly metamorphosing riffing shapes across wildly varying drum patterns. It is more extreme on the front of just how much more alien and unusual it is but rather than shapeless and watery abstraction, behind its veil of swirling, feasting madness are moments of punchier and more concrete riffing from jagged chords emerging like rampant razor-edged growths erupting from serpentine bodies or longer streams of soul-flaying tremolo strumming. Like the best of the more progressive or avant-garde bands, all their threats of supernatural horror are backed up by very solid, tangible weaponry.

Where this album truly shines, on top of already having a more interesting interpretation of death metal than nearly every other band this year, is just how complete the songs are. Aenigmatum’s songs always had a borderline progressive rock level of moving parts albeit communicated in a proudly barbaric manner. The intricacy remains but you don’t often notice it at first with just how much more smoothly each track develops them all. The easiest way to describe it like a go-train flying through a vortex on rails that somehow haven’t splintered to pieces. Songs open with a specific technique whether it’s higher registered tremolo onslaught, semi-dissonant chordal barrages, floating dreamy harmonies and build the song around their implicit atmosphere.

Variation in technique and harmony emerges at key intervals, riding on the energy and motion of initial themes as the precise rhythm section comments upon and fleshes out the rhythmic framework encasing the carnage. The streamlined nature of much of the guitar work as previously stated certainly does evoke a black metal-esque character but many of the songs find a way to sharply juxtapose this in their second halves, often using more particularly picked fretboard fireworks and even bluesy soloing displaying classic heavy/thrash/doom metal influences. These form a counterpoint to the arcane and sometimes quite abstract technical playing, not exactly ultra-accessible themselves but expertly positioned to climactically revolve a section or help add whole new layers of development and growth that keep the riffing topography incredibly varied with sharper, jutting notes often more concussive in character contrasting sleeker, rushing rivers of chords.

On the other hand, the album’s second half doesn’t emphasize these elements as much and instead opts for moments of less ripping but gloomy, foggy harmony as a juxtaposition to abrupt shifts to needling precision. Bass guitar usually is then given more room to shine either taking the lead for melodies or creeping ghostlike amidst the wake of hazy strummed chords. These are amongst the most stellar moments on the album. By demonstrating an ear for making relatively simpler, less jam-packed sections that when placed in the context of labyrinthine songwriting, the band is able to create highly memorable melodies without having to make them obviously hooky or hummable and that leaves their atmosphere a bit less visceral and eldritch, instead opting for these moments of what’s at once sorrowful and coldly detached.  That’s another of the album’s best strengths; while they have the chops to be playing very technically-minded music, each song is specifically configured with a specific identity in mind with both halves interpreting the contrast between the ruthless and the cryptic. “Undaunted Hereafter” opens with outright militant, regimented chords surging over a rigid blast beat but at its end twists its opening themes into a surprisingly loose, reckless inversion of itself. “Fracturing Proclivity” takes off with a dizzying array of abruptly stopping and then aggressively lunging corkscrew motions, pausing barely long enough to let you catch your breath before ripping away like a possessed, chainsaw wielding maniac. It’s by and far the band at their most chaotic even if it ends on a gloomier fade out intro over weepy soloing.

On the flip side there’s “Larker, Sanguine Phantom” with its malformed, almost scraping opening chords contrasted by short excursions into dreamy, uncomfortably “off” sounding screechy juxtaposition. It goes out of its way to avoid any kind of easier, crunchy riffing. Yet even when it does palm mute its lower register hammering is defined by the same odd mixture of what’s not quite fully melodic but not outright dissonant as the rest of the song. It’s constantly finding ways to give you what might seem like a more normal riff (by their alien standards) and corrupting it in some perverse way to ensure the song feels like it’s being heard in a dimension half a blink away from ours. “Animus Reflection” plays off yawning, almost meditative basslines stretching out in the wake of jarringly discordant strumming that gives much of the guitar work a very hypnotic, grainy vibe. Its midsection introduces more solid, austere technical elaboration with laser-precise tremolo melodies and tense percussion winding the song up for probably the fastest tremolo-blast section they’ve done to date, short as it is but viscerally satisfying. The album ends on a slightly less obtuse note, bass weaving through a series of hanging chords over notable cymbal emphasis before morphing into a series of proggier angled riffing, blasting its way to the finish line with a series of fracturing, wraith-like histrionics.

In two years Aenigmatum has not lived up to the promises of their shaky beginnings but completely exceeded them. Technically accomplished, compositionally sound, and bristling with fury and mystery alike, Deconsecrate is their finest hour to date. It’s rooted in many of the more arcane traditions of the genre but its end result could hardly be said to be a mere regurgitation of them. The incredibly specific configuration of these songs, their riffing at once nebulous but imminent, instrumentally impressive but measured in its application of its skills, and the atmosphere that rests at once between what’s beyond this world and the melancholy, terror, exultation, and rage that shrouds it—Deconsecrate is a small realm unto itself.

It’s certainly not going to be an easy listen for many with how many unusual choices it makes but its absolute conviction in these absurdities mirrors that of death metal’s finest bands throughout its 30+ year long history. I have seen a preview track, specifically its excellent opener, compared to a mixture of The Chasm and StarGazer (though it should be noted that only the former of these two counts among their myriad influences). While it does give the idea that they’re all about mystical, psychedelic, well played metal this only scratches the surface. The songwriting is certainly not easy to wrap your head around initially but it results in every song exploring very different facets of various death (and black) metal musical concepts whether they’re the sort that rips at the jugular or warps you to domains obscure.

There are a few bands that carry a similar degree of adventurousness to them this year. Putrescine’s The Fading Flame, Atvm’s Famine, Putrid and Fucking Endless, Turris Eburnea’s S/T EP, Siderean’s Lost on Void’s Horizon, and Diskord’s Degenerations all come to mind. While Aenigmatum could be said to share a similar degree of progressive tendencies, they all arrive at vastly different conclusions of nebulous otherworldly domains. They stand among these (and any others I’ve missed) as a band that’s not only found a way to escape the narrow aesthetic traps of the previously described styles but cliché as it sounds, find a voice of their own in one of the most crowded metal genres. At the same time, they do this without the need to rely on flaunting exotic influences and/or appealing to those who don’t really care for the genre. It is rooted firmly in a mastery of the fundamentals overlaid with a series of experiments with space, riff shape, tonality, and so on uniting death metal’s hellish aspects with its more sorcerous, eldritch ones. Breathing life into tombs once thought empty, Aenigmatum havs possibly crafted the album of the year. If not, they’ve still decimated the overwhelming majority of the competition past and present.

4.5/5 Toilets ov Nebulous Realms

Deconsecrate releases August 13th on 20 Buck Spin. You can hear all three preview tracks and preorder the album on the label’s official bandcamp.

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