Review: Doombringer – Walpurgis Fires
Emerging from crypts medieval in origin, Poland’s Doombringer rose from one of the many demonic names of extreme metal tomes to be a figure of intriguing obscurity into one of the most prideful and established of contemporary black death demons. In the timespan of five years they would morph from a simple if effective modification of the hypnotic atavism of bands like Beherit and Mortuary Drape before a split with Goat Tyrant and an EP introduced a new degree of visceral power and immediacy to their sound in 2012. However their greatest triumph would come two years later when their long awaited debut album, The Grand Sabbath, took the nocturnal terrorscapes of their sound to previously unseen and forbidden depths. The fever pitch intensity of the many layers of devilish reverence, the flesh-scourging fangs of new perverse riffing forms, and the looming structures of near supernatural order encaging all of this shot them to the very heights possible from fusions of death and black metal, forming their own distinct voice. One those influences would not be hard to spot but for whom what was being spoken, chanted, and howled was nothing alike them or even Cultes Des Ghoules (with whom they share some members) once one looked past the aesthetic.
After a slightly shorter wait, Walpurgis Fires has arrived to congratulate the faithful and entrap the helpless newcomers to the cult. It does bring a number of changes to their sound. The first is the somewhat toned-down production. While still caked in layers of filth, dried bodily fluids, cobwebs, and dust the powerful reverberating effect and thicker, fuller sound of the debut is oddly absent. It comes off as far more decrepit in turn if comparatively thinner but this helps evoke the attitude of some long abandoned decrepit castle. The meat of it of course has always been their highly idiosyncratic and frequently anachronistic sound. Whereas the previous album flaunted the arcane power of classic death metal with its dense bottom end power chords and shifting tremolo patterns, this dials that down a bit for more of the implicit suggestion and foggy ambience of their black metal roots. It also doesn’t feature any epic length tracks in the six or so minute range unlike any prior release and the resulting sound is them at their most concise. In that sense this album oddly enough sounds like it fits into their discography before their debut rather than after it in how scaled down it is for them.
It’s still recognizably Doombringer of course, from the looming melodies behind each riff to the structures they’re placed in. In a way reminiscent of classic Morbid Angel they balance repetition and the tension it builds against their blasphemous fulfillment signified by enormous shifts in direction and theme. Subsequently, while the songs avoid a typical cyclic verse chorus style arrangement, they’re not necessarily much harder to get than one in the steady dichotomy they maintain between the familiar and the emergent. In that sense scratches an itch similar to classic Greek black metal especially, translating the more classic heavy and doom metal aspects found in the classic works of Necromantia, Varathron, and Rotting Christ but filtered through the fiery severity of death metal such as Necrovore, Degial, and Shub Niggurath. Much of the riffing captures that rough-hewn vibe of classic early extreme metal when intra-genre experimentation was a natural extension of experiments with then amorphously defined styles and little was solidified or codified. The quasi punk recklessness that defined their predecessors however is absent as the evocative lead guitar lines and carefully paced rhythms make clear and this album represents a surprisingly strong example of how to exist in that bizarre paradox of at once sounding far more “old school” than nearly every band tagged with the title yet more clearly a product of the best craftsmanship available today. It is derived from the best of the past yet it never “clones” or mindlessly “worships” it.
However as you might have imagined from earlier, this album is a step back a number of senses that stop it from. One of the best parts of The Grand Sabbath is that it could be incredibly indulgent in its own atmosphere with moments carried heavily by dense layers of bizarre chanting vocals and tribalistic tom rolls, frequently finding moments to put in at times surprisingly fistpump or even headbang friendly moments that still were incredibly hard hitting and without compromising the sense of infernal devilry. Those moments haven’t vanished but they’re fewer and lesser in quantity and intensity. This unintentionally leads to some songs feeling a little empty. You’ll hear the chants and moans alright but it’s hard not feel they’re a little dialed in here, calmly talking as if reciting the passages of forbidden tomes as opposed to losing themselves in a spirit-possessed madness and about to burst from your speakers. While a strong example overall of the possibilities of non second wave Norwegian/Swedish derived blackness, the guitar work definitely does come off as somewhat static or even a bit turgid at points, falling into at times almost uncharacteristically blunt and plain especially on doomier songs like “Briceia Chants the Spells” or “Samhain Melancholia”. Other moments like the underwhelming lead bridge a bit over halfway into “Stupor Infernal” and the meandering solo in “Agenda del Aquelarre” come off as somewhat underwhelming resolutions for their expertise atmosphere building.
There’s no moments on the album that really throw the same jarring curveballs at you like “Vessel of Gifts” off of the debut with its surging opening polyphony and positively spine tingling doom break accented by subtle call-and-response between the screams and the moans. The same level surprisingly crunchy, musclebound riffing of “Ominous Alliance” bashing its way in after a creeping haze of a solo doesn’t really pop up either. Still, as a big fan of how their sound change for the debut I can’t say this is a bad album, quite the opposite if anything. It does go for a more direct and relatively simpler approach which is a legitimate artistic choice but it’s hard not to feel there’s more they could have done. Though for fans of first wave black metal and even the more occult end of death metal, there’s more than enough to enjoy on this sophomore with its inventive reinterpretation of early 90’s extremity and ambiguity. Its strengths are in its ability to take ideas simple at heart but turn them into a kind of creeping, gnawing fear far worse than how they initially seemed. It does so with a respectably intense delivery that still does an excellent job of selling the atmosphere of ancient witchcraft and supernatural debauchery that turned them from cult figures to modern day Polish legends. I would encourage them to reintroduce that same lucid nightmare mayhem as well as to take this newfound straightforwardness further, something they had done very well with “Crypts of Oblivion” back in 2012 (which I find to actually be their most well written song to date). For now this is an overall strong album in a time when hybridizations of black and death are flourishing like never before.