Review: Epitaphe – II

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The French Graveyard Romantics Strike Back

Death metal is a genre that has long since splintered into a dizzying array of subgenres, regional variations, variations of subgenres, “microgenres”, and so on. While the exact nature of say, technical death metal or blackened death metal is occasionally called into doubt, for the most part nobody really denies that they are concrete terms. The very real movements they initially referred to have long since congealed into schools of thought that tower over huge swathes of the genre and comprise enormous lineages splintered off into various sub-branches. There are many large genres of metal today but few can claim to have the absurd variety of death metal beyond black metal. Even with many believing the genre to be stale, this does little to stem the flow of bands attempting to cut out their own piece of the living, fleshy jigsaw puzzle.

There is one particular genre that can be contentious in terms of what it is supposed to be, namely “progressive death metal.” Progressive already is a word associated with pretense and delusions of grandeur, having a somewhat controversial series of associations attached to it and in death metal this is no different. Are Blood Incantation, Opeth, Persefone, Morbus Chron, Death and so on actually the elevated visionaries who transcended genre boundaries to higher forms of expression? Is it simply smoke being blown up of the ass of people who didn’t give a shit for death metal until it got trendy and draped in enough of quasi-unique parlour tricks? You’ve made up your mind already if you’ve been reading my reviews or deal with any degree of extreme metal discourse on the regression versus progression dichotomy (something ill-fitted for anyone with a firm grasp of genre history).

The point is regardless is that sometimes “progressive death metal” doesn’t seem like a genre (RYM mod representation quota achieved) as much as a vague grouping of nebulously comparable ideas. Many bands we might classify as early melodic or technical death metal can be said to be “progressive” in many ways. Other times, we might say some bands are more of “death metal tinged progressive fare” or simply “avant-garde” if they’re perceived as deviating too much from established norms. Is there a bias against progressive death metal? In reality, the genre is somewhat difficult to define a large part because it had no particular movement of flagbearers to its name. Even the “obvious” ones are more of a scattered group of outliers than some unified front for the most part. Yet I’d argue the easiest way to differentiate it from say, technical death metal (the genre it is most frequently compared to, fused with, or used as a synonym for) is that a difference in focus. Technical death metal has its devils in the details; the complex mechanics of rhythm, harmony, and music theory all at work for particular holistic package. It’s one that creates a kind of death metal wherein the standard motions of the genre are elevated to a higher level of finesse and refinement.

Progressive death metal by comparison looks at the bigger picture that encapsulates all of this for a broader interpretation of genre possibilities. It tends to look moreso at how we create songs and the basic ideas of death metal but shifts the perspective from which it is approached, the “progressive” part of its namesake focused on building a particular narrative from it. For examples of the very sharp difference between them, listen to the technical death metal of Psycroptic’s first two albums, Apep’s The Invocation of the Deathless One, Hateful’s Set Forever on Me, and Atrocity’s Hallucinations. For progressive death metal, compare it with Phantasm’s The Abominable, Execration’s Return to the Void, Darkthrone’s Goatlord, and Dark Millennium’s Ashore the Celestial Burden. I can go further into the specifics but that’s been enough bleating about these differences. The sophomore album of this French band long with their debut album help show not only how to do this subgenre right but exactly why it seems to be coming to the forefront of death metal.

With the concisely titled II (at a not so concise hour and three seconds in length), Epitaphe expand greatly on the brainier “cavernous” elements of their debut album and delve far more overtly into progressive elements. They already possessed a strong grasp of doom death tinged with psychedelic Esoteric-esque presentation and it serves as a strong foundation for an even more eclectic sophomore. Dead Congregation, Incantation, Morbid Angel, and Disembowelment among others make their mark known with the broad strokes of tremolo riffing and death knell doom-dirges that carried them through a stellar first outing. While these are far from unique influences in themselves, they serve as a springboard for an unusual approach to a style of blackened death metal that can come off as rather narrow typically. Epitaphe’s sound might draw from well-worn cavernous influences but it does not really come off as being “about” living to that style’s already fairly simple expectations. If anything, it is even riffier than what you typically get in this style, its powerful atmosphere not merely a sonic wallpaper to zone out to but an actively engaging vortex pulling the listener through labyrinthine, spiraling architecture. This is not an “easy” listen, and for many it may take time to grasp.

The most immediate thing noted is the sense of harmony present and the tonality it supports. Rather than operating within reductive Demoncy or Beherit-esque murk, they employ a fairly wide range of intervals and tonal character halfway between dissonant phrasings and darkly consonant ones. Certain moments feature both guitar tracks diverging to flesh out the textural backdrop with moments of off-kilter harmony. Frequently they emerge in the wake of denser guitar work, layering atop it in feverish, dreamlike swirls of odd phrasings and technical picking that help break up the topography of the riffing in sharply juxtaposing ways, varying up the still dense atmosphere. This style is no stranger to ambience but where most create it as a byproduct that simply fills out the space, Epitaphe use it as a narrative device that at times has a Tangerine Dream of Klaus Schulze sort of morphing, evolving structural underpinning, something they’ve kept and further expanded on here. There is not a whole lot of repetition on II yet the long-winded emphasis on ever-evolving, multi-sectioned compositions filled with highly adapted technical playing. What repetition does remain means it never really feels cluttered in spite of its progressive rock level of scope. There’s no real “hooks” or catchiness to this thankfully, focusing on what almost feels like a stream of morphing consciousness.

This is assisted by the bass guitar often plunking between both guitar tracks, frequently adding extra layers of harmony or fleshing out what normally might seem sparse. Leads and soloing are also emphasized to demarcate major areas of interest and conclude individual chapters of a song. There is a notable usage of clean breaks, less in an Opeth-esque sense but having this understated jazzy tinge to them. Aside from displaying their talent with dynamics outside of a purely metallic setting, these jazz elements play into the ambiguous tonality already established in the metal parts albeit in a vastly different setup, subtly resolving and exploring ideas to be picked up when the distortion kicks in again. This is all a lot going on at once and while the musicianship displayed is excellent, it does not come off as “technical” in the death metal subgenre sense. All of this happens across fairly long double-digit song runtimes, stretched out as if to almost melt in the furious activity. Rather than melting into the rush of carnage these are all treated as more like landmarks on a pathway or particular areas of high intensity action or exposition in a film; they mark where the momentum of coalescing themes and ideas hits its fever peak. They contextualize and contrast with what came before and also help create the backdrop to further explore these diverse ideas in sections to come.

Songs are appropriate fairly long to contain all of this. The only tracks that aren’t sprawling multi-part epics are its into and outro, both around three minutes. The meat is in three tracks each over 16 minutes in length. While some of this band’s inspirations may be in the realm of funeral doom, thankfully it does not extend to their structuring. It is most easily described as an ever-unfolding narrative, taking the previously elaborated idiosyncrasies and using each one as part of a sequence of cascading intensity. Each track unfurls through wide assortments of riffing and textures, storming and violent one moment only to be mournful and forlorn the next, connected to one another as much by their particular instrumentation as their implicit atmospheres. The acoustic sections here are welcome in that sense in how they provide a respite from the tumultuous motions of these songs while still replicating and exploring core themes. In the second and third tracks they serve as a sort of resolution for the violence in the first quarter or half of the song, both splintering off into sweeping, cinematic passages reaching explosively climactic swarms of harmony.

The third track by comparison starts somewhat more typically: a clean guitar lead intro. Not uncommon in metal but in this case it is intentionally made to be unsettling; every note both is and is not exactly melodic, a second guitar line picking beneath as if to further emphasize the rising-and-falling pattern both follow. In turn the rest of this song plays off of this pattern, somehow being at once uncomfortably melodic and deformed in its dissonance that forms a fundamental conflict for its runtime. How it ends while fully distorted, is an interesting riff on its opening. One dominant guitar line plays this half dissonant, half consonant theme (now with a heavy dose of echoing reverb) and another shadows it, as if going out of its way to try and sabotage it by not being entirely in synch or in concert. It’s an unusual effect that it creates in the entropic madness of the song’s nearly five or so final minutes, gradually melting away into an entropic emptiness of echoing effects. For such a complex album, it ends on what is (by their standards) a fairly straightforward note.

Progressive death metal is not a subgenre that ever really had a consistent style or popular movement. I would say this lack of uniformity has always been its greatest strength. Epitaphe on either album cannot said to be emblematic of how it functions as a whole. The ideas beneath their sprawling, imposing blackened death doom metal epics showcase many of its fundamental principles without really obviously referring back to a particular band. It is music augmented by excellent musicianship yet that is never the primary mechanic or feature which the music rests on. It is its emphasis on unusual harmony and odd phrasings that define their music, something explored quite thoroughly in the three lengthy epics.

Its atmosphere is not graveyard rot or supernatural rituals but something oddly personal even when wrapped in the mystifying airs of their borderline eldritch sound. It is an atmosphere a large part derived from the complexity, the constantly morphing metal landscape lending to an amorphous dream-state atmosphere where ideas come. Yet unlike a dream they rest on an impressive grasp of how to not only play great death metal but to assemble and organize its many components. It is adventurous music with zero pretensions about obscuring its roots in the catacomb filth that all of the genre rests upon. Yet rather than obvious stylistic juxtaposition or meandering noodling, Epitaphe took the familiar, the tried and the true and morphed it into their own. If you are going to be making progressive death metal from 2022 onwards, this is one of the monoliths you will be compared with for a long time.

4.5 out of 5 Epitaphs to Ancient Toilets

Epitaphe’s II can be streamed and purchased on their official bandcamp.

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