Review: HaunterSacramental Death Qualia

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The Texas trio quartet complete their transformation from black to death.

Rumor has it that 2019 has been a bang-up year for death metal. Well, now you can throw all the other death metal released this year straight into the trash, because Haunter‘s second full-length album, Sacramental Death Qualia, is all you need. It is a mountain of intelligent riffage and refined atmosphere, at once expansive and immediate.

Just a few years ago, if you told me that this young band was going to go on to write one of the best death metal albums of some future year, I would have scratched my head and arched a skeptical brow at you. Why? Because their previous effort, 2016’s Thrinodía, was a staggering work of black metal genius. I praised it when it came out, and it continues to get better every time I throw it on. I would have adored it if the band had continued down that path, away from simplistic hardcore/screamo-infused black metal and into Stygian realms of twisting melancholia and raging hopelessness. Alas, Thrinodía would put a nail (for now, at least) in Haunter’s pursuit of black metal perfection. On subsequent splits with Black Vice and Sovereign released back-to-back in 2017, they would tease a staggering leap in style and maturity, pivoting about 33º into dissonant death metal territory. The miraculous thing about the shift is that they were able to execute it without simply jumping tracks; they retained so much of the thick atmospherics (and cacophonous production) of Thrinodía while thickening out with a bottom-heavy sound, more muscular riffs, and of course—dissonance galore. The transition was so smooth, with such delightful results, that I didn’t bother to mourn for their black metal side much.

And here we are, at Sacramental Death Qualia, the fruit of Haunter’s lycanthropic labors. A death metal album through and through, yet one remotely haunted by the ghosts of their black metal roots. There are two surprises in store, and both will hit fans of the band right away. 1) The production is much less harsh, doubtless the result of being snatched up by a label at last (I, Voidhanger) and lucking out with a mastering job by Brendan Sloan, who’s ear shines through in his own solo project, the mighty Convulsing. The marriage of Sloan and Haunter makes perfect sense, given the current similarities between their respective stylistic bents, and also given Sloan’s recent work with Cosmic Putrefaction, whose main mastermind is also the mind behind A Clearing Path, a formerly hardcore-infused black metal band that recently braved the exodus toward dissodeath territory. (Got it?) And 2) Instead of leaping with abandon into full-blown dissonance, Haunter has actually pulled back from it a bit in order to showcase the technical beauty of their growth as musicians. The guitar riffs are more mind-boggling than before, the drumming is more adventurous in its quest to escape the despotism of the blastbeat, and the bass work, owing to the improved production, is revealed to be nimble and enthralling. Here is an example of young musicians striving to slough off old skin, push themselves beyond old limits, be better in every way.

Sacramental Death Qualia is probably best thought of as a suite, divided into five chapters, five stages of descent into the abyss of Self (or five stages in the grief that is born from realizing that the Self is but a handy illusion). As a whole, the suite is chaotic, always in flux, pregnant with riffs competing for supremacy amidst a wilderness of midnight ambience. The exhaustion that is bound to overtake the listener is a pleasant one, akin to what one might feel after listening to latterday Gorguts for the first or tenth time. The connective tissue throughout is actually the quiet parts, where clean or acoustic guitar arpeggios induce a sense of reflection, pining, or bereavement, or just give you a minute to catch your breath before the next acceleration toward annihilation. We were introduced to Haunter’s talent for calm segments on Thrinodía, and here that talent is deployed in full. Track 2, “Spoils Vultured Upon Sole Deletion” (what?) ends with such a segment, which carries us into the record’s centerpiece, “Abdication:” nearly eight minutes of mystifying quietude, a sparse arrangement for intricate finger-picking and otherworldly synths. The eponymous closing track echoes this atmosphere at the outset before gradually heaping on the aggression.

I’ve already seen Haunter’s new sound compared to Opeth. The comparison does not hold water throughout Sacramental Death Qualia, though there are a few places where Haunter is clearly tipping their caps to Mikael Åkerfeldt’s death metal legacy—most notably at the outset of “Spoils Vultured Upon Abdication,” which sounds like an outtake from Blackwater Park. The impersonation is so well done that I must concede: no band before Haunter has managed to make good use of all the tools that Opeth brought to the death metal workshop. (There’s even an utterly unexpected stab at clean vocals in the final track that, buried in effects, sounds like an echo of Åkerfeldt.) The irony is that Haunter is neither an Opeth clone nor especially interested in carrying a torch for Åkerfeldt. These boys are on their own trip, so don’t let anyone fool you into hearing too deeply into the comparison. It’s an amusing sidenote at best.

I can’t say I’ve fully digested Sacramental Death Qualia. What I have done is vomited it back up in text form, hopefully in a manner that is enticing or at least intelligible. Fans of Malthusian or Gorguts or Convulsing will find much arousal here (it’s a bit of a long-shot for Opeth fanclub card-holders). Hell, maybe even consumers of spastic skronkozoid stuff like Sunless, Baring Teeth and Tchornobog will dig it. (I don’t know, I just like typing names of bands.) Let us proceed now to a taste of the music itself.

Because evolution has been such a vital force in Haunter’s career, I’ll present you with excavations from each layer of their fossil record in chronological order. To the uninitiated, the disparity between stable forms may be jarring. To those already familiar, it’s a beautiful process, like watching a time-lapse film of a crocodile evolving into the maddeningly elusive croco-duck.

 

Anyway:


Sacramental Death Qualia will be released on FRIDAY THE FUCKING THIRTEENTH of September, 2019 by I, Voidhanger records.

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