Review: Astral Tomb – Degradation of Human Consciousness
What is cavernous death metal without its cavern?
This was widely considered* to be one of life’s greatest mysteries by the death metal elite,** but it has been solved with the release of the newest EP from Denver’s Astral Tomb. It’s hard to say whether that was by design or not, though; the allure of cavernous death metal lies in its relatively simple riffs blown up to massive proportion with a ton of reverb. Taking away the reverb, the part of of the equation that creates the “cavernous” sound, would normally be near-crippling to a band like this.
But Astral Tomb are no normal cavernous death metal band. Their recent appearance on the four-way Chasm of Aeons split alongside Cryptic Shift, Replicant, and Inoculation was easily weird enough to hang with the other three, something resembling the bastard child of Blood Incantation and Calcemia. It was a little rough around the edges compared to the other three, but I’d argue it was a strong enough showing to prove they could emerge from their subterranean lair and carry themselves on their weird, alien riffs.
I’m a big enough person to admit when I’m wrong.
I’m not entirely sure what happened between Degradation of Human Consciousness and the band’s 2019 debut. You can’t pin it on the loss of two members in the meantime; they were already a three piece on their Chasm of Aeons contribution, and that song was fine. Perhaps stripping away the ubiquitous reverb from a self-billed cavernous death metal band really is a death sentence for them, regardless of the flavor of their chasm-skulking riffs. Whatever the reason, this EP ended up being a sloppy mess even by dirty underground death metal standards.
Things start off well enough; “Devouring Sorrow” opens the album in a flurry of weird, off-kilter riffs replete with gnarly pinch harmonics and grimy slides. It slows to a crawl, clawing its way through a mire of slimy polyrhythmic doom riffs that never quite settle on one particular repetition or even tempo, and it easily achieves the alien feeling the band is trying to evoke here. However, by about three minutes in, you can start seeing the frayed ends in the tapestry they’re trying to weave. The faster, shredding leads sound like they’re trying to play the same field as guitarists like Azagthoth and Macey, but they fail to stick the landing; it sounds completely directionless, unpracticed, a pale imitation of the pioneers of this style. Bass is entirely absent from this recording, and the lack of bottom end makes the woofy guitar tone that much more annoying. The band also sounds like they have a hard time staying together at some points here; it’s not too bad on this first track, though, and I respect them going for a live feel.
However, by the time we hit track two, everything begins to unravel. An uninspired lead on the first track (the worst that song has to offer by a long shot) gives way to the middle song on the EP, a trudging doom affair that exemplifies all this album’s problems. Nothing of the problems listed in the previous paragraph would be a deal-breaker if they were the exception rather than the norm, but the slower pace of this song brings them all to the forefront. With the exception of the opening guitar lead- the only one on the record I’d call good- the performances are downright embarrassing. Despite the drummer’s valiant efforts to keep time, the guitarists simply cannot come in together or play to the beat at all. Every time one of those too-distant heavily palm-muted power chords hits, it feels like the tone is pushing in on your eardrums; entirely too much space is left between them, too, making the song feel empty and meandering. All of this is of course further exacerbated on the closing track, which also incorporates a low, droning, phaser-soaked (flanger-soaked? It’s hard to tell with how quiet it is) guitar line that sounds like it’s attempting to fill some of the empty space, but mostly just highlights how sparse it all sounds.
And I get that some of this is probably the point; the album is called Degradation of Human Consciousness after all, and I like the idea of an album that sounds like it’s gradually disintegrating as it goes along, but the execution here makes it a slog to listen to. Aside from the fact that the music didn’t speak to me at all beyond that first track, this EP is just a total mess. There’s nothing wrong with having raw production and recording it all live, but again, the slop sounds like it comes from lack of practice and lack of cohesion as a band rather than the expected foibles of a live performance. Maybe I’d feel differently about this if it was billed as a demo, but somehow, the band’s actual demo sounds better than this.
Now, it should be said that there are some people out there who will enjoy this; if you really like digging into weird death metal demos from flash-in-the-pan artists from the ’90’s and ’00’s, I think you’ll get something out of listening to this. The ideas on Degradation are unique enough that it does feel like something that could have emerged from the early(ish) days of death metal- it’s hard to really point to any solid influence on this- even if I do regard it as more of a failed experiment than anything else. If that sounds like you, then take this whole review with a grain of salt and give it a spin. However, I’m confident that most listener’s views on this will align with mine; the more casual listener, the people going to death metal strictly for enjoyment, are not going to have a good time with this. Astral Tomb have proven that they have the chops to make some good music, and there are a couple cool ideas here, but this EP really just doesn’t feel like it came together in any meaningful way.