Review: Hexer – Abyssal
What the Hexer?
I rarely review death metal, not because I don’t like it, but because I’m not in tune enough with the genre to really say much about it. It’s good, then, that the latest from Germany’s Hexer is only tangentially related to death metal, so I don’t need to reference a bunch of bands I only sort of know. Then again, Abyssal sees the band maneuvering into an odd enough spot that I once again end up with very little to compare it to and am left unsure if that’s because of actual novelty or because I just haven’t heard the influences.
In short, I feel ill-equipped to review this record, but it’s too good to not talk about it, so I’ll attempt it anyway. While I drone on about how it both is and isn’t a death metal album or some such nonsense, why don’t you go ahead and just listen for yourself.
We can make a few arguments for Abyssal being a death metal record. First and foremost, there’s the vocal approach. It’s not the meaty growl largely endemic to the genre now, but the throaty, raspy snarl of the oldest of the old representatives of the genre. It’s stark nakedness fits well into the largely undistorted sound of the band where nothing is allowed to hide behind anything, but before we get to that, it should be noted that Hexer can be death metal in other regards. Especially towards the end of the record, they dip into tempos and moods that can be called death metal without too many asterisks and qualifiers.
We are gonna need some of those if we want to fit the rest of the record under the moniker, however. As mentioned, the sound of the album is very bare-bones in the sense that practically no distortion is present. On top of that, not a lot of the riffs seem typical of the genre (although I would like to point again to may lacking expertise here). Given the very prevalent ways in which it doesn’t fit the mold, then, perhaps Abyssal should only be considered death metal in the way Noltem‘s Illusions in the Wake is considered black metal—that is, simply for lack of a better word. It’s death metal that has been far away and come back again, reduced to the barest of genre markers, but enriched by other influences. It’s travelled through time to the ’80s to pick up jangly goth guitars, and it’s travelled through space to the middle east to pick up its enchanting melodies. Welding both to its chassis, it became death metal that simultaneously recalls post-punk revival acts (“Katarakt”) and eastern-inspired bands like Melechesh (“Sea of Molten Spirits”).
But is it really death metal? The counter-proposal bascially writes itself, because Hexer aren’t—or at least haven’t been until now—a death metal band. MA lists them as “doom/sludge metal,” and indeed, going back to their debut, tellingly titled Cosmic Doom Ritual, we find three sprawling and crawling tracks that have little to do with the agile compositions on Abyssal. The sophomore hits closer to the mark, but is still full of long, meandering sections of sludgy doom. Barely anything in the band’s history justifies a painfully long treatise arguing that they’re death metal, but on the flipside, barely anything on Abyssal directly recalls doom or sludge.
Still, viewing the album through this lens explains and recontextualizes a few things. Previous releases already seemed interested in capturing the grandeur and mystic atmosphere of the desert in a way not unlike that of countrymen Eremit, and that spirit is carried over into Abyssal. In this light, the undistorted sound could just as well be described as barren (though not lifeless), making it a logical choice. The jangly guitars become less of an homage to goth and death rock and rather a perfect vehicle to cleanly transport the kind of oriental-tinged riffs that are the album’s most direct tribute to the sandy biome. “Sea of Molten Spirits” again serves as a good example here, as it’s entirely centered around one of these. The track also displays the album’s tendency to occasionally stall the forward momentum of a song to just kind of ride out an idea for a while, which can be a bit detrimental; creating a hypnotic effect through repetition is, on the whole, on brand for Hexer, but doesn’t seem to work as well on an album that has otherwise left the realms of doom and stoner metal.
In conclusion, I’m still none the wiser as to whether death metal is the skeleton of Hexer’s sound or part of the meat on it, but I think you could get away with calling Abyssal “progressive death metal,” followed by maybe a sentence or two (rather than 800 words) to elaborate. In any case, genres are dumb, and music is best when it doesn’t readily fit any. Therefore, this album easily earns
3.5 out ov 5 Flaming Toilets
Abyssal came out February 17th on Crawling Chaos.
Get it on Bandcamp, and check out that beautiful merch, too!