Review: Miasmal Sabbath – Ominous Radiance
Strange visitors from interdimensional pits.
Throughout its impressive roughly around 30-or-so-years lifespan, death metal has taken a wide variety of shapes and sounds with a level of virulent growth oftentimes rivalled only by black metal. From its hyper-explosive late ’80s to mid-’90s explosion to its mid-’00s descent into absurd excess, leading to its splintering into more atmospheric, classic, and dissonant forms in the ’10s, it seems every passing decade reshapes the genre for a new audience. This isn’t to say that there are no threads connecting these eras; common ideas can be found woven from the past into the present. Sometimes death metal has been filthy, other times rotten, melodic on occasion, blackened on another, but we do not often think of it as psychedelic or at least not as much as we might think. As it turns out, there has been a history of druggy, strange aspects to the genre that can be found in a number of classic ’90s acts.
The flourishing and meditative soundscapes of Cynic and Atheist’s jazz fusion-injected pensive voyages are two bigger name early examples of psychedelic extremity but it was never the central focus of their sound. Others might say Demilich, Timeghoul, and Autopsy laid down the fundamentals for this genre and they are not wrong, especially for the latter band, though it was also likely not exactly what they were going for either. Then there are bands such as Carbonized, Korpse, old Darkthrone (Soulside Journey and Goatlord), Traumatic Voyage, Afflicted, and Alchemist representing the first wave of this style, beginning as part of the massive explosion of brainy technical or progressive death metal that came to fruition in the chaotic early years of the genre. Unfortunately, as the early ’90s became middle then late, they overwhelmingly vanished. The ideas they pioneered however, were far from dead even if they were not necessarily resurrected in their image.
In the late ’00s and throughout the ’10s, bands like Morbus Chron, Execration, Diskord, Tribulation, Stench, Cult of the Head, Necrovation, Temisto, and Cadaveric Fumes presented a smoky, hazy, brain-twisting variant of the genre blessed with a ’70s-esque trippy swirliness that coincided with a rise in psychedelic and “occult” rock. What their predecessors from the early ’90s began they expanded into a vibrant kaleidoscope of death metal variety. Blood Incantation in particular could be said to be the major flagbearer for this style and recently Cryptic Shift proved themselves to be every bit as adept, even coining the term “astrodeath” to describe themselves, but in spite of a number of high profile bands, this psychedelic movement doesn’t seem to have become the tidal wave of genre convention defying and expanding change that one might think it would have. Why is that so? The technical death metal explosion as well as the dissonant death metal one combined did help acclimate many to the idea of “weird” death metal. The aforementioned Blood Incantation is one the biggest of the recent death metal acts, enough so that some might decry them as trendy. Morbus Chron and Tribulation for a while were among the biggest names in death metal. Where did all the momentum go?
There’s no clear-cut answer to this. While it was a very distinct sound, it did emerge when the genre was undergoing a massive period of change as hundreds of different sounds whether tried-and-true or out-there were battling for dominance of the sonic landscape. It was a very distinct sound but did the record labels think the same or recognize it as such? It wasn’t uncommon to see many of them treated as an anomalous group of outsiders or simply viewed even as part of the dissodeath or technical death movements even if that was far from 100% accurate. A lot of these bands tended to lean more heavily to post-Autopsy death metal but none of them ever cloned that band given all the mind-warping elements they added to the mix. In spite of that, I remember some being seen as more of a subset of the now bloated and tedious OSDM movement. Whatever the reason, death metal with a spacious, floaty sound that sounds like it was meant to space out as much as it was to obliterate your body and soul is a thing that bands continue to make. This year even we’ve already had three excellent albums in the form of Afterbirth’s Four Dimensional Flesh, the aforementioned Cryptic Shift’s Visitations from Enceladus, Felgrave’s A Waning Light, and two of the style’s oldest and earliest modern pillars, StarGazer and Diskord, have their fifth and third albums on the way.
Today we have Greece’s Miasmal Sabbath with their debut album, Ominous Radiance. Beginning as a hybrid of death metal and crust in 2016, a year later they changed towards a more psychedelic sound often associated with Morbus Chron. Three years later and they have only expanded on that with a full album in this style, taking things away from the realms of the festering towards the atmospheric and ethereal. As said earlier in this review, this is a style that has much of its roots in the early days of death metal and these Greeks display no shame in their primordial heritage.
D-beats propelling loosely strummed riffing abound in song lengths that can range between 6 to 10 minutes and in spite of the eerie minor key chords and forays into broad swathes of blackened riffing. A lot of its more primitive characteristics surprisingly enough do not clash with its ear for lengthy passages of abstract ringing patterns and amorphous guitar work; it sounds less like they wanted to make a “punky death metal album” and moreso that the punkiness was a byproduct of the kind of loose, foggy sound they were going for. In spite of how long these songs are, they aren’t really a band that screams absurd VoidCeremony or The Chasm style complexity either. They do not use a great number of riffs but they use a mixture of repetition building up expectation to create a push and pull mechanic between their atmospheric dimension and the relentless energy always hounding its perimeter. It’s an interesting sound that manages to take the meat and potatoes of the death metal genre and transpose them from what is typically seen as rigid and blunt music into something that flows and soars with an energy that is not often found in this movement.
A number of problems arise from this however. In fact, I suppose you could say they are problems that affect not just Miasmal Sabbath but a number of bands in this particular style of death metal, possibly illuminating why it hasn’t gone as far as it could. The main one is that while their punk heritage is interesting to see in this epic death metal context, it seems to illuminate a larger problem with it as a whole. Namely that while they can make it work, it does have a tendency to feel somewhat superfluous on closer examination; yes, it does give the music a pulsing, loose, energetic vibe but the atmospheric bulk of this album doesn’t really feel like it’s allowed to be expanded on as much due to this odd stylistic insistence.
They’ve also run into the problem a lot of black, death, and fusions of the two have in that it’s actually pretty difficult to remember a lot of the riffing. Much of it is comprise of these lengthier airier sections that stretch on for quite some time and usually take a while to change to a newer riff. They’re not bad riffs in spite of being communicated in such an abstract way but the pay off and resolution to them often feels rather muted due to this stylistic emphasis on sheer mood and vibe. This is further compounded when the repetition really sets in and begins wearing down the sense of mystery as the dread spectre of tedium looms over the horizon. Their presentation and aesthetic might be as best as the spookiest of black metal bands but that alone cannot stop a fairly solid set of riffs from turning into tiresome ones when repeated ad nauseam for sometimes up to a quarter of a song.
Essentially, the main failing of this album is that while it has a strong aesthetic and is run by people who know their way around a cool riff, they struggle with the problem of building something more out of their riffing. The spacy, blackened, psychedelic death metal idea they have is genuinely cool as is how they’ve managed to work their punky roots into it. At the same time, it holds them back at points with their songwriting often failing to justify the length and repetition that’s a core part of these songs. To further summarize it, it is hard not to feel that this album is unfulfilled. I suppose that could be said for a large part of the moment; all of its flirtations with psychedelic influences was a good idea but it also lead to bands who seemed to exist mostly to flaunt them in the name of creating this mood rather than having it as a natural extension of their underlying musical mechanics.
That isn’t a unique or rare flaw for Miasmal Sabbath or psychedelic/”astro” death but maybe it illustrates another vital reason why it never truly took off. At the same time, I would caution against writing these Greeks off entirely. Their shortcomings can’t fully hide the fact that even if things are essentially too drawn out, it’s not unpleasant. They have a powerful sense of creating a powerful, storming sense of atmosphere backed up by a good deal of aggression while the black metal aspect of their sound lends a particular air of unambiguous malevolence to their sound. I would advise them to spice up their sense of texture further as well as to invest in more riffs to help space out and contrast their lengthier, spacier moments. A willingness to use repetition in shorter doses leading to more varied payoffs would also hugely benefit their sound. The foundations for a truly great band that exemplifies the possibilities of this style are there but time will tell if they can make that push to truly become the next big one.
3/5 torso-deprived cyclopean midgets with relatively enormous arms
You can purchase and listen to the entirety of this album on Miasmal Sabbath’s bandcamp page.