Review: VoidCeremony – Threads of Unknowing
Visions from the Voidside
Metal supergroups are not something I typically look forward to. They’re a fun idea on paper: take your favorite musicians, combine their strengths, and create something greater than the sum of their individual capabilities. In practice these rely less on pure musicality and moreso on the clout and star power associated with everyone involved. They frequently converge on the lowest common denominators to create a semi-presentable package and all the star power cannot change that. This is not to say they cannot work but it’s difficult for the stars to properly align for it to be so. So colour me surprised when VoidCeremony main brain and founder Garrett Johnson managed to recruit Quebecois shred-wizard Phil Tougas (First Fragment, Chthe’ilist, ex-Serocs) and StarGazer bassist Damon Good to his fairly obscure progressive/technical death metal project. With master drummer Charlie Koryn (Funebrarum, ex-Ghoulgotha, Ascended Dead, Decrepisy among many more) already a member and Garrett himself a highly capable fretboard wizard himself, interest in the band began to rise.
The last lineup was not unimpressive either featuring guitarist John Reider of Ascended Dead and bassist Ian Mann (ex-Ghoulgotha, Conjureth), both having been involved in some of the finest and freshest 2010’s death metal. While none of the musicians ever involved have the brand name recognition as the lineups of Bloodbath, Hail of Bullets, Death, and Nader Sadek, that is a relief in this instance. Threads of Unknowing rests not on the admittedly more niche recognition of its more underground musicians but its ambitious vision for death metal. It is ultimately Garrett’s brainchild yet it’s hard to imagine it having turned out so well without musicians capable of keeping up with his many particularities and idiosyncrasies. Stellar musicianship plays a huge part of its appeal but it is in service of an arcane and mysterious evocation of death metal its cover art hints at only for the music to fully enrapture and mystify. So not only is it a rare example of a functional “supergroup”, it is also a great example of where death metal could start heading in a time of oversaturation and comfortably turgid trendiness.
VoidCeremony’s aggressive sound can be thought of as falling under a progressive/technical death metal categorization. The latter side of the slash is pretty easy to make out with a jazz fusion-influenced execution reliant on tight coordination and varied technical execution. On a purely immediate level it’s a flourishing symphony of turn-on-a-dime guitar patterns, ever-harmonious bass interplay, and furious drumming laden with dexterous intricacies and adroit versatility. You can almost imagine the guys just straight up doing metalized jazz fusion, strongly reflected in the virtuosic guitar soloing. Its progressive aspect most obviously plays out is in its ambiguous consonant yet dissonant tonality, no doubt trained by careful study of fusion. Other hallmarks include the multi-sectioned ever-unfolding structures, the layered interactions between Phil and Garrett, the intense genre-blurring eclecticism, its juxtaposition of alien savagery against calm reflections, and really just the impressive refinement everywhere.
All this combined results in a listen that is astral in its atmosphere despite its busy-bodied delivery. There’s a lot crammed into every song beyond the short interlude yet rather than a brutal riff repository it’s a narrative journey through realms chaotic and astral in equal measure. Atmospherically, it’s not “evil” metal but something beyond such morality, dwelling in realms alienated from more carnal dimensions where the arcane and the eldritch interact. I cannot say it’s life-affirmingly positive or oppressively dark, but something introspective and reflective set against a backdrop of surrealism and the otherworldly. It is not easy to find examples of the death metal genre operating on a similar wavelength but that speaks moreso to the hyper-specificity of bands like VoidCeremony and the fascinating perspective they possess.
This conceptually is really damn cool but they also need to translate this all into something audible and memorable. More importantly, they need to demonstrate its strengths beyond merely sounding nice on paper. To this extent, Threads of Unknowing gets a lot done in a relatively short run-time of 33 minutes across 5 metal tracks (once again excluding the interlude). As mentioned previously, a complex approach to structure is one of their hallmarks but I’ll elaborate on that; it holds the music together to the same extent as the insane musicianship. An ever-broadening sequence of riffs forms its base, commented on by hollow and disconnected vocals as a wide array of styles continually manifest to shift its sonic topography. The rhythm section surges forward for pattern shifts to further elaborate on its harmonic qualities and capitalize on its perpetually swirling motions. Tremolo patterns paint structure in broad strokes of tone and forcefulness, creating a space for Damon’s bass to harmonize and tension to build to Charlie’s relentless blasting.
Changes in tempo and sharp contrasts in guitar patterns emerge to let differing facets of songs breathe through its incessant complexity. It could be a punchier staccato riff breaking apart the streamlined fluidity of a tremolo portion, sparse and floaty jazzy chords to create dreamy expanses of reflection, tech-thrash inspired nuances that weave complex melodies through the contorted structures… the versatility here tends to be reserved in its execution. It’s very blink-and-miss-it but it illustrates the many colours of the palette on display in its careful use and placement. In the moments where intensity fluctuates, Damon articulates notable bass work into these breaks Charlie often announces with flashy, fleshed-out rolls. All of this happens very quickly with a prevalence of blast beats, slowing down but never for too long, letting songs develop at a very brisk pace. There are no “doomy” sections here or easy grooves to fall into even when it slows and the album can feel very unforgiving, less so than on their pre-debut material but making no concessions for easy digestion.
Really it’s just the guitar and bass solos that serve as the only obvious ear candy here but they tend to serve as climaxes for individual segments of a song. I mentioned the jazz fusion influence upon them and beyond the technical skill involved behind them, they fit in quite well with the album’s unusual relationship with both consonance and dissonance. As if for a few brief moments they encapsulate it in a more digestible package. Sometimes they’re quick-fingered flurries of flowing fretboard firepower and on the flipside you can have slower expressionist execution almost feeling like it hints at a groove amidst the death metal tornado. They’re going to be a highlight for many listeners and are genuinely well executed, but there is also the interplay between Phil and Garrett. Moments of polyphony and oddball harmony creep up often understated and especially in the second half of the songs. It can often sound as if both guitarists are playing similar yet distinct, diverging parts frequently lending itself to the deepening, warping atmosphere of the album without drawing too much attention to themselves.
Topping all of this off is an excellent production and mastering courtesy of Italy’s Gabriele Gramagia, himself an adventurer in this avant-progressive field of death metal. Turris Eburnea and Cosmic Putrefaction demonstrated not only his shimmering, jangling riffing style but also making the mix and sound suit it perfectly. Threads of Unknowing benefits just as much with excellent separation between all instruments and a bit of a hazy, grainy sonic overlay making every instrument feel as organic as they are time-worn. It does not scream raw power or plasticine cleanliness but it is yet another major contributor to the album’s air of the supernatural and the mystical. It is raw though deliberately so, in a way distantly evocative of analog death metal demos from the ’90s but executed with the technical expertise of contemporary advancement. Solos in particular cut right through its misty layers, giving them an additional impact and really helping to sell them as the album’s frequent high points.
All of this combined has resulted in a very strong entry for a growing field of death metal I’ve come to since label Death In Opposition, in reference to the classic “Rock In Opposition” movement of avant-garde progressive rock from the ’70s. It’s reflective not just of the well-deserved renown of the musicians involved but also the stylistic choices made throughout the album. It’s a fresh album that for all of its progressive, technical inclinations comes from a domain at once more ancient yet exploratory than what the death metal bearing said prefixes typically has come to mean. Disregarding the excess of the dissodeath movement, as mystical as the best of classic death metal yet nothing like its OSDM offspring, and certainly not falling within the purview of clean and tidy “modern” output, it’s an album defined by its hyper-specificity. I do not know if they still could have made an album of this calibre without such a skilled lineup yet it demonstrates the possibilities of death metal beyond the saturation of its dominant trends.
It is perhaps the best argument for a supergroup in decades yet it never feels at any point as if it rests on the (fairly recent) prior glories of Phil, Damon, or Charlie. It’s an example of the best death metal can do in the here and now, joining a relatively small but growing number of bands in exploring a broadening frontier. Fans of bands like Putrescine (USA), Calamitous Skies, Inanna, Vile Rites, Aenigmatum, Atvm, Nebulos, recent Unaussprechlichen Kulten, Skortue, Loam (Minnesota), Discordant Meditation, Siderean and Epitaphe would do well to grab this album. While VoidCeremony is distinct from each band here as they all are to one another due to their own idiosyncrasies, a certain spirit of adventure pervades their sound. If you are looking for one of the best examples in a promising field of death metal still unexplored and thankfully not yet clogged by excess label signings, VoidCeremony’s Threads of Unknowing can count itself among the flagbearers for an eldritch future.
4.5 out of 5 Realspace Rifts of Ceremonial Significance
Threads of Unknowing releases this Friday on 20 Buck Spin.