Review: Plague Rider – Intensities
Anthems to Absurdity
It is a not too uncommon tendency in metal for a band’s origins and their current style to be two very different things. Whether it is Gorguts, Blind Guardian, Voivod, The Chasm, Kamelot, Manilla Road, Deceased, and countless others the genre is no stranger to change. Often it is a mixed bag and it’s hard to deny that commercial pressures, changing trends, and shifts in lineup can result in some more… uninspired fare or some might say transformations in sound. Yet from looking at the previously listed examples it is clear more than a few are the polar opposite of such, looking to explore their horizons and refusing to get comfortable sitting on their laurels. Formed in 2011 and playing an early ’90s-style hybrid of death and thrash infused with a primitive technicality, Plague Rider debuted in 2013 during the opening years of the Old School Death Metal movement. Even then their sound never fit in with their contemporaries such as fellow Brits Cruciamentum and Scythian or outside of their borders, groups like Ectovoid and Blapsherian. While sonically they now bear little semblance to their early 2010s era, this off-the-beaten-path aspect has remained a paradoxical constant in their career.
Plague Rider’s debut was in an uncommon style, but it is the 2015 EP that saw them shifting past the bounds of Atheist and Aspid. While some thrash remained, the riffing had taken on a jarring dissonance and bristling, harsh delivery and structures became more amorphous, both playing into improvements in musicianship. Said improvements contributed to a sound far more merciless; not in a BPM sense but in a deliberate lack of easily grasped hooks and comfortable tonality. Three years later and they only got weirder with another EP taking them into a very atonal, dissonant domain. It is tempting to put them among acts like Svart Crown, Ulcerate, Pyrrhon, Gorguts, and Ad Nauseam yet while certainly influenced by some of them it differed in a few particular ways. Rather than the mathier late 2000s and early 2010s onward sound that congealed into what we call dissodeath today, this was something more cryptic. It matched many of these bands in terms of intensity and alienation yet its riffing had a more pointed character and its underlying rhythms were more rigid. Integrating shifty technical exposition featuring moments of articulate almost Cynic or Martyr (Can) sorcery, the end result feels moreso a far-flung descendant of hidden weirdoes like Thormenthor, Catharsis (Denmark), Chirurgia, Karnak (Italy), maybe the reckless absurdity of something like CorpseVomit.
The aptly-named Intensities sees the heights of lunacy elevated for a 52-minute outing. While broadly able to be categorized as a sort of avant-prog technical death metal act, this descends from a different lineage entirely than say, Obscura or Nespithe even if the songwriting and technicality converges on a few shared practices. It’s certainly nothing like Inferi or Archspire either, even taking into account its blisteringly packed delivery. They may be from a subgenre associated the most with the most refined or excessive of musicianship yet that is not the primary focus. Plague Rider’s sound feels loose, not sloppy but as if everything is slippery and almost-but-not-perfectly fitting together. They’ve clearly practiced but the very technique while berserk in its tenacity has a style that lacks a lot of easily grasped riffing, like being lacerated by a thousand little twitching insect limbs all serrated with spines.
All of Jake Bielby’s carefully executed, buzzing technical elucidations congeal into blurry, swarming harmonies and flurries of psychedelic chords. Overlapping lines of stringed instrumentation create walls of sound laden with myriad little details, teeming and quivering as fervent habitats for cacophonous noisiness. Even the tremolo riffs tend to work against these jarring disharmonies, both guitar tracks sounding as if they’re distorted murky water reflections of one another. There’s not a lot of “meaty” riffs or “caveman” here while the production partially diminishes the power of whatever palm mutes there were (were there any? Hard to tell) leading to an album of entirely difficult, opaque riffing. I can think of little that has this general vibe, perhaps maybe Absolute Disgrace’s Corpse Kingdom from 2004. Granted that one is far more conventional by comparison but there’s little else that captures that vibe of every band member recording at least partially in another dimension with slightly differing space-time flow. If you’ve heard Jake’s project Dybbuk (featuring vocalist James Watts) there’s a similar sense of tonality rendered into a vicious, pointed form. It’s similarly noisy yet its ambience emerges from the beehive level of furious activity, generating so much motion and energy it often feels as if one is drowning in layers upon layers of guitar work.
All of this sits upon the very busy rhythm section, furiously expanding the scope of the carnage. Lee Anderson in particular developed a cluttered, ever-aggressive style of bass for this project far different than his others. On paper it would be excessive but given the maelstrom he’s playing in, it would be hard to imagine this without his twitching, scurrying basslines not climbing up every nook and cranny (or burrowing into new ones) forged by his bandmates. Think less Steve DiGiorgio and more Rainer Landfermann in Pavor, toning down some of the open counterpoint for a style that’s both more in the background yet writhes and convulses with greater energy. No less manic is Matt Henderson’s drumming, sounding the most demanding it ever has yet best described as “catastrophic” in its effect. He comes off the least as a traditionally technical death metal musician, playing with a deliberate abandon not quite reckless but playful and looser in its sound. The entirety of the band seems to balance on his hands, racing cymbal patterns phasing in and out while rolls erupt out of the flailing flux and flow about like some enormous centipede throwing a fit in a crowded office space, knocking over cubicles and people alike in its many-limbed fury. It’s impressive to hear how both work in tandem, never letting a dull moment manifest on their watch.
James Watts should be commended as well. While circuit bender/noise musician Rob Woodcock helped to make his voice sound all the more tormented on the Rhizome EP, he’s no less gnarlier howling solo. Overlaid effects and reverb still let him manifest as the echoing calls of some extradimensional void-dwelling horror, his tone at once disturbingly wet and slimy. His best parts take on a more shrieking black metal character, piercing the same sonic texture he seems at risk of being absorbed into as phrasing bends and his voice dips in and out of the ambience of intensity surrounding it. His comparatively more traditional death metal growl is nothing to scoff at either but rather than evoking power, it lurks and watches. His phrasing is very deliberate, almost oddly calm in this more death metal approach, evoking the mental image of some observant alien analyzing the interlocking mechanisms surrounding it. He’s the cause for a great deal of the atmosphere, an element of the human (or rather, the biological) within a realm of cruel and inhospitable musicianship that mocks and mangles any semblance of being welcoming or easily approachable.
A quick glance at the tracklist reveals that on top of every minute of the deranged instrumentation being sanity-desecrating torture, there is only a single instance of it going on for under 5 minutes. While this cluttered and cramped delivery typically works better in medium- to shorter-length songs, Plague Rider have no issue extending it to a scope normally associated with prog bands yet this is far more unhinged than anything Blood Incantation or recent Tomb Mold has done. Intensities’ songcraft can be difficult to decipher past its wall of madness but they have even integrated that into the layout of each one. A simple way to get a handle on it is to view as a dialogue between areas of condensed, carefully picked and consistently paced tones and those of abstracted and more spaciously “atmospheric” ambiguity. A dialectic if you will, wherein both conflicting modes inform their mutual need, blending into moments of surreal harmony and jarring fusions. It’s the job of the bass and the drums to juggle all of this and James’ to narrate Jake’s descent into maddening avant-garde death metal treatises. It’s not necessarily the death metal band with the most riffs per song or tempo changes per minute (ie. Liers in Wait and Involuntary Convulsion). Their ability to bewilder lies in aggressively oblique delivery, operating on a mental wavelength distant from this planet, yet one that with close observation reveals structuring eerily deliberate in spite of its superficially random appearance.
Jagged and jarring riffing often bearing a ’90s sort of distantly tech-thrash hallmark to them (run through a blender of overlaid effects and almost tech-grinding noisiness) will emerge and be submerged into a barrier of watery harmonies and chords. It’s a contrast simple at heart but rather than both being opposing sides, it is the sheer chaos of the former that often makes its progression to the latter a natural evolution. Both had similar end goals; they merely converge in a sense yet they do not leave it at that. The more aggressive and directed riffing adds a greater variety of specific color and tonality to the surrealist haze. In turn, the shapeless sections streamline and summarize it into a few particular notes, briefly streamlining what was presented. The latter sometimes comes in the form of repetitive bridges, momentarily letting the song focus on a core theme that can take an unusually melodic character. While it can feel as overwhelming as a New Standard Elite band at times, there are more than a few slower portions where the song is allowed to breathe… in hallucinogenic vapors as they let the bending riffs and trippy patterns take center stage with greater detail and clarity.
Breathing nausea-inducing air fresh from their heaving lungs into a crowded genre, Plague Rider stands out as a band outside of the typical categories for most modern death metal. Many of its roots are in the ’90s but it has little to do with even the more unusual “OSDM” acts. It is highly dissonant to outright atonal but arrived at these conclusions in a way separate than how the dissodeath movement has. The musicianship is meticulous and cunning in its performance, yet it exists in a realm far from the shiny polish and saccharine window-dressing comprising most technical death metal. Beyond some of the highly articulate riffing, this does not even have much to do with their earlier material whether it is how much they have improved as musicians or how visionary they have become. Prior to this, Plague Rider was a band of promising ideas and gradual improvements, but after 12 years they have finally metamorphosed into a whole new band. Oppressive dystopian atmosphere and eldritch musicality have combined for an avant-progressive masterpiece, joining VoidCeremony, Februus, Paroxysm Unit, Fleshvessel, and Darkrypt among others in demonstrating death metal’s many still-unexplored horizons. It’s by far their strongest work and an encouraging sign of things to come whether in their discography or the growing presence of strange, adventurous death metal.
4.5/5 Flaming Toilets ov Hell
Intensities releases on November 10, 2023. You can preorder it on Transcending Obscurity’s Bandcamp.