Review: Grave Miasma – Abyss of Wrathful Deities
A cyclone in the catacombs.
The histories of black and death metal began closely intertwined in their larval state before they had fully differentiated in the ’80s, separating for a while in the ’90s as both became starkly opposed to one another, and the re-entwining once more after their respective heydays led to a variety of interesting cross-pollination. This is of course a somewhat simplified view of history, but it’s hard to deny that both genres have influenced one another heavily. Typically, it has been death metal receiving the lion’s share of musical concepts as opposed to transmitting them, often classified as blackened death metal and accepted as a genre or style by many. Death metal had become quite bloated near the end of the ’90s and its own increasingly exaggerated, if tediously empty, obsession with frenetic intensity (whether through blocky brutality or showy technicality) was becoming quite tiresome to many. What was black metal’s ’90s Norwegian explosion initially if not a reaction to death metal’s rise to prominence and perceived loss of its once forbidding, occult atmospheres? It seemed that there was some truth to the narrative given how quite a few of the first death metal bands seeking to resolve this issue like Cruciamentum, Dead Congregation, Necrovation, and the subject of this review, Grave Miasma, took many notes from the second wave of blackness. While death metal wasn’t alien to the concept of evocative moods and subconscious-lurking eeriness, it was perceived as a lost art of which black metal’s dedication to the implicit and atavist was a gateway to rediscovery.
Granted, not every death metal band attempting to revive that sense of more measured songwriting and supernaturally oppressive horror went the blackened route. It is still telling that when what we now call “Old School Death Metal” began, it coincided with another movement often referred to (derogatively, lazily, or even admirably) as “caverncore” but I prefer to refer to it as “ritualistic” death metal. Grave Miasma was one of the first practitioners and innovators of this sound albeit under the name of Goat Molestor as far back as 2002, taking elements of primordial often first wave-oriented (and often death metal adjacent) black metal like Profanatica, Demoncy, Blapshemy, Beherit, Hadez, Sarcofago, and Mystifier then combining it with the rhythmic framework and songwriting of most famously Incantation but also ideas found in that band’s contemporaries such as Infester, Imprecation, Decrepit, Morpheus Descends, Deteriorot and so on.
The mystical abstraction of black metal fused into the labyrinthine coils of the darker, doomier end of death metal; an effective combo that they further developed with a change to their current name, making quite a few waves in 2009 in the wake of titanic releases by Mitochondrion and Dead Congregation with the well received Exalted Emanation. Their signature sound would see further growth 4 years later with Odori Sepulcrorum, a masterpiece of ever-coiling riffs stretching out from labyrinthine subterranean passageways yet still finding room for powerful, soul-erasing intensity. Truth be told, they had little competition in this particular ritualistic style which was slowly becoming rather bloated with bands who had all the atmosphere but little metallic backbone to back it up. It was something they possessed in spades and which also was displayed by two of them for their stint in Cruciamentum albeit in a far more vicious, Morbid Angel and Finnish death metal-influenced form.
In spite of 2016’s Endless Pilgrimage EP mostly showing them further improving their ear for eerie harmonies and layered, dense songwriting, their sophomore is a notable change of gears. Over the years many have compared them to Cruciamentum (an inaccuracy I will elaborate on) but on this album, it’s not hard to hear why they might. The new Grave Miasma is a different animal but not an unfamiliar one. Even the advertisements for the album have emphasized they are sacrificing some of the fog-draped atmosphere for an additional directness and intensity. It’s easily Grave Miasma at their most direct and more conventionally riff-focused. At the same time, it is not quite a metamorphosis or abandonment of their roots. This is still recognizable and closer to the sound of Exalted Emanation in some ways, channeling their energies in a more straightforward manner.
On Abyss of Wrathful Deities, Grave Miasma’s sound sees a number of key changes to their ceremonially tested doctrines. You’re still greeted by CCOTN’s lengthy tremolo passages offset with descending layers of chordal funeral knells but to add to that, DBH’s drumming has become even more prominent. While he was always quite capable, here his tasteful fill work finds a newfound intensity that adds an additional layer of visceral impact to their music. This coincides with a lot of the riffing feeling less like it’s hanging and hovering almost ambient over the drumming and instead racing and branching away from it, sharply turning and hitting jagged percussive topography. I suppose some would say the music is less “textured” and while I can understand what is meant by that and don’t think it’s necessarily wrong, I think there’s a more fitting description.
This album is immediate in a way the older works were often not and doesn’t focus as much on hypnotic rhythms calling out to your subconscious. Those moments pop up but they’re a lot more calculated in their usage and the end result, while featuring many lengthy songs, feels more spirited and somehow even more concise in some ways (even if the track durations aren’t notably different). Does this actually make it more like Cruciamentum though? Not if you look past the superficial aspects. The early ’90s non-Nordic black metal aspects of their sound still colour much of the guitar work to a far greater degree than even on earlier Cruciamentum and while more urgent than the last album, this is comparatively doomier and it doesn’t have the same slimmed down, incisive viciousness of their British (and now partially American) compatriots. A “change in style” this isn’t—it’s more of a slight but notable shifting of the gears.
Regardless of how the technical implementation of their sound has changed, Grave Miasma are still masterful death metal songwriters. There are a lot of riffs in these songs, probably the most of their entire career thus far. While a lot of it still feels very murky, this newfound riff-centric sound means their song structures are outlined with greater clarity. The volume of riffs and the greater frequency of switches from one to another subsequently grant it a greater sense of speed as well. Combining these two aspects results in songs that unfold in a very kinetic manner, still finding pockets for hypnotic drum rolls and guitar patterns but expecting you to keep up with its speed.
Whereas previously they used ambience to morph and filter through song structure, it’s almost the reverse here as riffs link together in lengthier chains alternating between more solid, thicker voicings and various airier and more open-sounding ones. The effect is akin to rising and submerging through differing layers of a murky swamp, clarity coming and going as you see glimpses of foliage-infested shapes emerging from the gloom. This more narrative approach to structure, something that while not unique to latter day death metal is more common in its case, works quite well as a constantly evolving chain of riffs with relatively little repetition of themes plays off of their shift in sound well. Every riff feels very specific in its role; advancing tempo and song development, creating breathing room and varying intensity, and revealing the payoff to these stalking passages with areas of funereal, hallowed power. Grave Miasma’s signature atmosphere still remains but you could say it is more hurried and time-efficient in its implementation and is backed up by their meanest musicianship yet.
If I do have to criticize this album, it would be that the production does feel a bit weaker than on Endless Pilgrimage and Odori Sepulcrorum (I had to fidget around with some volume adjustments) even if they were handled by the same person. This isn’t really crippling of course, but it felt like it needed something closer to the Exalted Emanation production job. While I do believe that EP is flawed in some senses, the surprising clarity it possessed was far from that. It is refreshing to see them unleash an impress cavalcade of riffing that makes it clear they can easily butcher and slaughter as well as any other more blunt, visceral death metal band. On the flipside, there is a tendency for them to feel like they want to complete the transformation into a sleek and serpentine riff-launching machine but the constant need to contrast it with callbacks to their more abstract side do create this sense of aesthetic conflict.
This is their most aggressive work since their Goat Molestor days but it also feels like their most uncertain as well. They can do straight-for-your-jugular death metal well and they hardly sacrifice that much of their evocative mood to do so but it doesn’t always feel like they’re as confident about that as they could be. At times I feel it would be nice to see them just unleash the sheer savagery we all know they can. Fellow Brits Vacivus, for example, made a similar shift away from their hazy, smoke-shrouded roots but they still retained a very distinct atmosphere and identity. Grave Miasma certainly could do the same. Naysayers be damned, the album’s most vicious parts have a distinctly otherworldly nature of their own and simply doubling down on the explosive violence wouldn’t change that.
In spite of these shortcomings, Grave Miasma is still dwelling in the upper echelons of death metal not just of the “old school” or blackened and ritualistic categories but the genre as a whole. There may be some issues with the consistency of their stylistic aims here, but their grasp on writing compelling, resolute death metal exceeds nearly anyone else. These songs leave nothing to chance and are still colossal, towering statements of the kind of occult atmospheres that their particular kind of death metal first arose as a bulwark for. It’s certainly more long-winded than death metal typically is, but they’ve managed to use a lot of ritualistic techniques that would normally be abused elsewhere and convey them in a manner that is more agile and intense than how a lesser band might.
A lot of new opportunities are being presented here one way or the other. It remains to be seen if they will try to top the incredibly strong sense of eldritch mood that defined them since their name change or if they will further invest in the newfound clarity conveyed via intensity they discovered here. A number of bands have gone the latter route such as Ignivomous, Necroven, and even the almighty Dead Congregation—perhaps they had seen the writing on the wall as this particular murky, subterranean movement within death metal has arguably fallen prey to its own aesthetics in many cases. As this review makes clear, Grave Miasma has not, (whereas countless compatriots have) and is still standing strong even after nearly two decades. I do not deny this album has some stumbles with its choice in direction here; still, even a moment of hesitancy for this band remains more resolute and well realized than countless other death metal bands, whether stylistically comparable or not, sprouting up like weeds since the mid to late 2010s. If you like your death metal when it’s as much a voyage to shrouded domains as it is the annihilation of body and soul, the long-awaited Grave Miasma sophomore is just what you need.
3.5/5 Unearthed Burial Urns