Review: Cruciamentum – Obsidian Refractions
Tenacity above all.
When Cruciamentum released Rotten Flesh Crucifix in 2008, death metal as a whole was beginning a massive shift away from the uncontested dominance of then “modern” bands like Spawn of Possession, Nile, Behemoth, Krisiun, Deeds of Flesh, Vital Remains, Disgorge, and Hate Eternal. It had been a functionally American genre in terms of its major representation since the end of the old school era in the early ’90s, with the majority of the classic European (typically Nordic) styles having been shoved into the background or in cases like “melodic death metal”, having functionally lost most of their namesake beyond the most superficial elements, retreating from the genre proper. Even for the big names of the time that weren’t North American, their roots were in the works of Suffocation, Malevolent Creation, Deicide, Cannibal Corpse, Cryptopsy, and so on taken to their furthest extremes. The entirety of the brutal and technical death metal subgenres, which had come to define much of this era, were completely based on then mainline American ideas or had purged themselves of almost anything outside of that. Death metal had become a very narrow genre, focused primarily on the exploration of avenues of cluttered blast-happy brutality or the furthest ends of demanding musicianship. The fatigue that was setting in laid the seeds for an equally large reversal of this norm.
It is tempting to say Cruciamentum were part of the “Old School Death Metal” (OSDM) and “caverncore” movements and styles but this simplifies the goal of both them and contemporaries. Grave Miasma, Inanna, Ignivomous, Dead Congregation, Denial (Mexico), Mitochondrion, The Chasm, Obliteration (Norway), Scythian (UK), Blaspherian, Gyibaaw, Ulcerate, Necrovation, The Wakedead Gathering and others were not so much a unified front as much as a wide-ranging umbrella movement. It sought to both revitalize and diversify aspects of death metal that the modernizing movement had atrophied yet as a whole it could not be said to be a return to tradition. Innovations in atmosphere, style or aesthetic, texture, ambience, and tonality often picked up where the classics left off to further explore their possibilities were its implicit goals. While it has long since splintered into the prior two mentioned styles as well as dissodeath or “dissonant death metal”, such boundaries were not as initially absolute nor were stylistic expectations and the resulting genre fatigue so entrenched. From this even a relatively “vanilla” band like Cruciamentum came off as a breath of fresh air, debuting with the cult classic Convocation of Crawling Chaos and after a lengthy 6-year wait, refining their sound for Charnel Passages.
Contrary to lazy yet unfortunately popular narratives, Cruciamentum were never a particularly “cavernous” band beyond some production choices (that did not last past the first demo) and some of their doomier portions. Dan Lowndes ensured they remained focused on riff-driven aggression and atmospherically-infused structure over the blackened ambience and texture of groups like Portal and Teitanblood. The debut album essentially shifted them (further) towards the realm of Morbid Angel’s Formulas Fatal to the Flesh yet its dissonance had been replaced with a pensive melodic sensibility in the vein of Demigod’s Slumber of Sullen Eyes. In the years since, as the Finnish death metal sound went from fairly niche to one of the defining parts of the now rather turgid OSDM movement, that aspect of their sound has since changed. It would be a mistake to say it is absent but with part of the band having relocated to the US, these British stalwarts have sonically come closer to their primary inspirations and the harsher tonal qualities that comes with. Recruiting veteran Texas skinbeater Matt Heffner and blackened death stalwart bassist Chris Eakes, Obsidian Refractions demonstrates a newfound savagery brought forth by honed musicianship no less evocative than its predecessor.
You would not think that with its doomy opening of ringing riffs and stomping percussion but this is almost a symbolic sending off for how the previous album ended. A minute and forty-six seconds in and the band is blasting away at a speed not far off from what Matt often performs in Oath of Cruelty. Chris’ meaty basslines stab forth alongside the sharp and notably less melodic riffing both Dans bring to the table. Doubling as a vocalist, the former’s voice brings a harsher desert-dry howl almost inflected with a bit of Trey Azagthoth, moving away from the deep bellow of Lowndes for an almost blackened, spiteful tone every bit as vitriolic as the guitar work. Excursions into semi-thrashy skank beats and further elaborations on soloing punctuate this heavy-duty onslaught, the pseudo-hypnotic Finnish tonality of their prior outing contrasted with jarring dissonance, almost Lvcifyre-esque at points. The new Cruciamentum, while not a complete departure from their origins, shifts enough of their trademarks around into a form faster, sharper, and more vicious in nature. Yet the emphasis remains on ever-unfolding structures, used to moderate atmosphere and intensity, and sleek riffing versatile in its capabilities remains. They might be closer to the kind of death metal they were originally a reaction to but it would be a mistake to say these fairly superficial resemblances have put them in the realm of Angelcorpse or Azarath.
France’s Ritualization, Spain’s Necroven (please make a third album) and fellow Brits Vacivus (with whom they share guitarist Dan Rochester) are closer if anything, along with the titanic Dead Congregation. Incantation remains an undeniable influence yet, far less of one than ever before with an unambiguous riff-heavy delivery tremolo-heavy in nature but carefully cutting, slicing, and twisting with ruthless precision and tasteful dissonance avoiding excessive streamlining. Whatever escapades towards death-doom territory exist are kept far shorter and often are not really in that subgenre’s territory—they are merely short digressions, dictating the flow of songwriting far less than ever. They are still comfortable at slower tempos yet they rely on this far less than ever, dodging the tendency for much of contemporary OSDM to enter toothless midtempo mosh-trudge territory. Did I mention Matt Heffner’s drumming? Beyond the obvious increase in blasting power, he brings an explosiveness to the table differing from DBH’s comparatively measured sound. The faster portions demonstrate this the most, having a tendency for rapid-fire fills folding into the thrust of the rhythm, adding a certain wild character to this otherwise austere style. Yet just as he demonstrated in Blaspherian he’s no slouch when the deathly attack settles into marching tempos, constantly building tension, ever ready to unleash a torrent of blasts at any moment.
All of these aesthetic and technical changes are for the better but just as important is the way the songs are laid out structurally. This aspect has not been changed as much as further upgraded, coinciding with Cruciamentum being at their tightest. While many associate classic ’90s death metal with stripped-bare simplicity, Cruciamentum never cared much for this reductive point of view. While I would hesitate to call them remotely “progressive”, Dan has steadily upped just the sheer amount of what was in every song since their first demo. Yet it never feels as over-encumbered as a lot of the death metal they were originally a response to.
Like with Morbid Angel, paired riff repetition always featured heavily but that formula remains expanded upon considerably. Short digressions and thematic variations leapfrog their narratives into lengthier chains of interrelated riffing, resulting in a band that could very smoothly introduce many individual sections to their songs. This is executed with a clarity that makes their often-lengthy runtimes impressively cohesive in execution, utilizing the amorphous-yet-aggressive nature of their tremolo riffing to smoothly transition between patterns, augmented with a crunchier and more percussive approach for a greater range of variation within each track. Wider ranges of riffing style result in further differentiated individual segments of a song, avoiding “riff salad” through the contrast and interplay of opposing ideas tied together by moments of sleeker verses. Cruciamentum know when to have their showstopper moments but they also know how to create the environment where their sudden appearance feels earned as does its place in the larger compositional framework.
Individual songwriting, another strength of theirs, also shows no signs of slowing down. I’ve gone over the opener already and two tracks later we get another gem. “Necropolis of Obsidian Mirrors” begins almost as Tucker-era material might, misshapen mid-tempo riffing laying the groundwork for layered dis-harmony seemingly resolved by an uptick in aggression and speed. Yet off-sounding dissonant notation dots the riffing, unable to be distracted from by harmonization or brief spurts of soloing. A triumphant mid-tempo portion suggests yet does not cause a return to the melody of the debut album, as does a strangely dreamy clean melody layered over simple angular doom riffs. When it does kick up again, this contrast between dissonance and melody is reflected in the misshapen way the riffs resolve, as if falling apart just as the phrase ends. “Interminable Rebirth of Abomination” on the flipside almost sounds like it could have been from Charnel Passages, even if executed with the cruel tenacity of their current lineup. It is by far the most consonant song here yet its blasting verses and overall heightened level of jam-packed, bristling aggression almost threatens to shatter its familiarity.
By contrast, “Drowned” is their most ambitious track yet and their lengthiest since “Unsanctified Temples” off of 2011’s Engulfed in Desolation. Their signature tremolo attack makes itself present after an eerie clean intro yet they deliberately fragment it with Tucker-esque sluggish choppiness and churn. It hints at an almost psychedelic side, letting the bass take a more prominent role by the middle and not even for the spacier, hanging chords. They even manage to fit in a spacey, abstract portion three quarters into the track, evoking Disembowelment less so in terms of rhythm as harmony. Of course, they are not going to leave us hanging like that. The song actually ends in a spurt of organized chaos—wailing leads, lopsided atonal rhythmic patterns, Matt going nuts on the kit; it all fades away as if giving our eardrums time to adjust to the end of a destructive cyclone. A fade-out if you will but one that ends definitively with one final squeal of the fretboards before a satisfyingly entropic nothingness.
In spite of having had to wait over 6 years for both Cruciamentum albums, they have thankfully paid off in full. The debut album capitalized on the last elements of their more conventionally Finnish elements integrated into a workmanlike, distantly thrash-derived American death metal framework. The sophomore cut most of its ties to the Nordic states and doubled down on aggression and musicianship, embodying atmosphere through intensity and intricacy. As a band that never had much in the way of bells and whistles, they have consistently punched above their weight with varied songwriting letting simple ideas become far more than they would in a lesser group’s hands. There is a lot going on with this album even if it is associated with a style that has come to mean something far more atavistic. Subsequently they’ve demonstrated a ruthlessness that never conflicts with its ability to evoke the best of classic American death metal. Most of their modern contemporaries may now be looking to Sweden and Finland but busy fumbling with tired caveman tropes and equally bite-less hardcorebrOSDM chugga fare. Yet in looking back to the oddly under-represented, thrash-derived American end of the genre associated with bands like Mexico’s Shub Niggurath, Sadistic Intent, and Mortem (Peru), Cruciamentum have demonstrated there still remains life foul and obscure in classic style death metal that has no need to play by a contemporary rule book.