Review: Vacivus – Annihilism

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Maelstroms of death metal mayhem.

Cavernous death metal has become almost a dirty word in some circles in the same way war metal has and truthfully, I’m not wholly opposed to that. While I can name a couple of flag-bearers for both genres that demonstrate the strengths of each style when in capable hands, even with Sturgeon’s Law factored in both of these black-death fusions more often than not are a lot of aimless fuzz that vaguely resembles riffing, either foaming at the mouth before being taken behind the shed or turning into sonic wallpaper. A few of the style’s largest names perhaps grew dissatisfied themselves and took some notable steps to get away from this. Cruciamentum, Ignivomous, and Dead Congregation all  made some very notable changes towards a more actively aggressive and less ritualistic sound after their stellar debut material between 2007 and 2015 and two years later, Vacivus had already toned down much of the same from their origins when Temple Of The Abyss released. Another two years on and it seems they decided they needed to go even further, reintroducing a vicious and snappy energy akin to the classic American death metal sound of bands like Morbid Angel and Sadistic Intent. However, their more atmospheric roots were never discarded thankfully; like fellow British deathcultists Cruciamentum the alien melody and doomed dirge-like atmosphere of the now revitalized Finnish death metal style festers under every chord and lead. The end result is an album that while eerie and moody still strikes with a hammerblow intensity often absent in many of their compatriots.

Off of the bat, if you don’t like tremolo picking then this album might struggle to hold your attention. Like many bands investing in the darker Incantation, Demoncy, and sometimes even Profanatica influenced ends of the genre, the band makes this time-hallowed technique a core function of their sound. However as you might have guessed they end up at a very different location than say Altarage or Portal. The reason behind this is a fairly simple one; they don’t stretch out their riffs for too long and even during these lengthy phrases there’s quite a bit of coiling, twisting movements and a sharp eye for contrasting them with adroit changes in phrasing introducing additional harmony, texture, and melody as well as crunchier chords and breaks in pacing and riff flow. These are simple mechanics on paper but their effect goes a very long way, keeping a sense of flowing motion that breaks and shatters as if against rocks in a rapid, leading off into areas of relatively lesser intensity but allowing for a deepening sense of mood through changes in tempo and riffing shape. While they are by no means as focused on the devil-in-the-details musicianship of Blood Incantation or VoidCeremony, this additional layer of variety allows them to work in a wider range of musical ideas and with an additional precision only hinted at previously, whether it’s the previously mentioned expanded arsenal of guitar work or the tasteful drumming which balances flair and savagery to the oft-shifting needs of the songs. It’s refined rather than demanding and tasteful rather than weedly, underscoring the demanding nature of these sprawling hurricanes of songs. This is very straightforward death metal at heart, but it’s executed with a level of coordination and focused, calculating aggression that puts it head and shoulders above the genre’s ravenous hordes.

The other ace up their sleeve is the fact that just like on the debut, they know a thing or two about writing a damn good death metal song. I’ve mentioned previously that there’s quite a bit going on in each song—hardly a unique feature in death metal since the early 90’s. What turns this from merely a grab-bag of cool riffs is how well everything flows together, displaying a knack for kinetically linking various interrelated portions so smoothly you almost forget just how much is happening. They’re similar again once more to Cruciamentum but they don’t use the same combination of paired riffs and “epic” narrative ladder-like structure to join them together, focusing mostly on the latter rather than the former. It helps subsequently that there’s even more melody to their sound, using a lot of simple and memorable tremolo melodies to create a sense of steady motion and expectation and branching it off at various intersections as they break from a pattern to explore a different facet of it. There’s a constant sense of a core thematic idea mutating into grander, more horrific forms with each new variation and iteration it undergoes—additional deviations introducing new layered horrors, like climbing some grotesque tower of flesh and bone, parts peeling away under your grip to reveal new reeking, rotted pathways on your ascent to the top. Once again, their ability to sharply contrast riffs even with a heavy emphasis on tremolo picking plays a huge part in making each one feels like a different chamber inside of this theoretical flesh-tower, using these sharp contrasts to alter atmosphere, aggression, tempo, and technical focus from segment to segment and resulting in even the shorter songs feeling as fleshed out as something three minutes longer in length.

There isn’t very much to criticize on this album. I imagine if you’re not very big on “vanilla,” prefix-free death metal (or classic styled death metal in general) then this album might come off as lacking something of the more frenzied or otherworldly nature of some of its compatriots. Vacivus has been a band I’ve watched up their songwriting scope and musicianship consistently since 2015’s Rite of Ascension and after four years it’s satisfying to see them hit their highest peak to date and outdo themselves once more, bringing a fresh energy to a rotting field. The sound of theirs might not be one that stands out on paper but the passion, intensity, and precision they bring to it is refreshing in a time when classic American death metal, the sort born from thrash yet having excised the majority of the catchier and accessible parts of that genre for a much more ominous form, is overwhelmingly absent for no real good reason. It’s the perfect example of expertise and finesse speaking just as loudly and clearly as experimentation and surrealism, bringing a refreshing severity and mercilessness to the field.

Four out of Five void-borne latrines.

Annihilism is out today and you can purchase it here.

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