Sepulcrustacean Returns: Catacomb Ventures

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After a rather long break, we return to the depths no worse for wear. Enjoy 10 little known extreme metal gems to make the increasingly nonsensical weather a bit more bearable.


Vinterkrig
Härskare över stjärnorna och mina drömmar
2021 – Graveless Souls Records

How a digitally released melodic black metal demo from the last 5 years that featured two Opeth members (the Martins Lopez and Mendez) flew over everyone’s heads infuriates me. It doesn’t feel it should be obscure but here you are, reading about a demo recorded in 1997 only recently released on a small label. From a black metal subgenre historically closer to its death metal roots, Vinterkrig’s bread and butter is in lengthy tremolo patterns frequently overlapping into polyphonic territory. Differentiating them from the majority of their peers are both prominent keyboards and no-less-significant structural complexity, befitting of their progressive metal connections.

The storming blast-driven forays and concussive Dissection-esque thrashy riffing you may expect aren’t absent but they play second fiddle to elaborate, mournful melodies tinted with a gothic air. Said gothiness benefits from Johanna Sadonis’s voice, lending her operatic wail at more than a few sections complimenting the streamlined, lightly ’80s metal-tinted riffing. While its ingredients are familiar, the lavish arrangements, tight musicianship, and understated symphonic touch give the album a sense of vastness and atmosphere greater in scope and scale than is typical. Sacramentum and Mork Gryning come to mind but with a more death metal sense of pacing and shifting structure. Excellent work that despite its age holds up tremendously well as a fresh and versatile entry in the subgenre.


Sepulcrum
Lamentation of Immolated Souls
Burning Coffin Records – 2023

Most of the OSDM movement has set its sights on primarily European influences yet Chile remains the sole location where America’s classic offerings hold much sway. Many Morbid Angel cultists worship at the Altars (as did they on Corpse Dividing Holes) but things have taken a Sick turn since. Thrashy Floridian rhythms interspersed with the signature Pentagram-style melodies of the scene morph into churning atmosphere as comfortable at a slow boil as it is with streamlined blasting violence. “Atmosphere” however extends from the riffs rather than suppressing them, resulting in an album whose sinister and creeping songcraft threatens with a steadily unfurling armory of riffing. A bit of early Deicide creeps in via atonal muffle-chunk rhythms, dotting the sonic topography with speed bumps breaking apart and slowing down rhythms when needed.

There’s a refreshing clarity to this kind of prefix-free death metal, deprived of the usual cheap hardcore bro grooves and cavernous reverb-fuzz. While it is pretty plain from a glance, the utter malevolence it radiates through its meticulous pacing and calculated intensity give it a sense of deliberation to its infernal evil. It almost hints at the realms of bands like Cruciamentum and Ritualization, lacking the post-Incantation and Dead Congregation implicitly blackened undercurrent but derived from the same grounded American framework. It’s not particularly complex yet its very particular sense of structural layout and at times fairly slow-burn approach to build up might not satisfy those looking for easy gratification. In a time when classic USDM is unusually under-represented this album is considerably fresher than it initially appears in spite of its otherwise no-nonsense sound.


Discordant Meditation
Interface
Independent – 2023

Sonically warping forward to the contemporary, this avant-garde technical death metal act sounds borderline sci-fi in its psychosis-themed onslaught by comparison. A merciless array of acrobatic yet stabbing, fragmenting rhythmic sensibilities and nauseatingly ambiguous tonality define these five songs. Riffs are short flashes of rusted tone and pummeling chunk scraping and bending with the shock-and-awe of a skronky dissodeath act. Yet they’re grounded and hammering in spite of the tendency for songs to rarely get attached to a riff for more than a few fleeting breaths. Its dizzying song structures are cemented with at times near brutal death levels of sonic abuse, warped and alienating in spite of the bone-shattering force behind its riffing. Flickers of maybe Ulcerate or Gorguts manifest within these labyrinthine structures but their airier, twanging characteristics have been mostly subsumed into a pulsating mass of abrupt blasts and hammer-blow percussive guitar work.

The rhythm section, handled entirely by one member, nearly evokes a sort of late ’90s to early ’00s blastaholic kind of technicality. Highly capable but like the riffing and withered growls, less here to dazzle and more to punish. At times venturing into militaristic cadence yet no less comfortable capitalizing on slower portions, its complexities come in a streamlined just-enough fashion. Each song is a Suffocation level of densely written yet the devils in its details do not demand too much attention themselves. The guitar work does not feel as if it’s attempting to be outwardly virtuoso, simply descending into increasingly sickening and difficult to grasp forms. As if to fit the drumming can feel almost blink-and-miss-it in terms of its rolls and fills. As if rather than any pleasing shows of dexterity, both members play moreso for the needs of the songwriting; which is more aural torture than it is exuberant musicianship. A punishing listen that rewards the patient and depraved.


Calamitous Skies
Demo 2023
Independent – 2023

On the flipside of this kind of newer avant-prog/tech death metal is this solo project. Run by Luna Darling of Death In Opposition weirdos Putrescine, Calamitous Skies lessens the jackhammering in exchange for a more acrobatic display of tonal ambiguity. Earlier At The Gates (primarily The Red In The Sky Is Ours) as well as her prior band inform its unusual interplay between consonance and dissonance as does what feels like an element of floaty jazz fusion especially notable on the second track. Its riffs are thinner than the previously reviewed band, slender and angular in their nimble acrobatics and reliant on an understated degree of dual-guitar intertwining. Where Discordant Meditation fractures and tumbles, Calamitous Skies practically dances and juxtaposes its conflicting elements, its melodies warped and diminished yet undeniably present. It may lack any of the outwardly pleasant elements we associate with the very term “melody” yet this warped, alien interpretation plays well into its mythological atmosphere extending even into the Final Fantasy cover.

The drumming could easily be mistaken for an actual drummer for the most part though you will notice the cymbals at times being a little too uniform sounding. Hardly a flaw given how well they flow with sharp, concise fills and tense patterns letting Luna’s guitar patterns fly with surprising forcefulness. Bass is very well separated in the mix as well, pulsing strong in its heavier downstrokes and harmonizing lightly with the riffing. Vocals are a little buried by the (excellent) guitar, a lurking upper-midrange gurgle recounting these tales of the fantastical. Already there’s a lot here that’s just begging to be further developed, whether by Luna’s own hands or with a talented crew at her beck and call. I personally would love to see the harmonies further elaborated on as well as the fusion-tinged soloing, maybe even a video game medley as well. Progressive and technical while avoiding the typical stylistic domains associated with either term nowadays.


Sharq Al Sama
Nadhom dzakirah shohibul Asrar (نظم ذاكرة صاحب الأسرار)
Metal Gear Death Merch – 2022

I don’t like the “slam” subsect of brutal death and folk metal fares little better but somehow this Indonesian duo-project managed to make the marriage of both make more sense than it should. Arabesque melodies (occasionally supported by acoustic instrumentation) and outright dancey rhythms play into lowbrow slamming stagger riffs and brief flashes of blasting. Riffing normally atonal and serving as rhythmic filler is now augmented with exotic melodies, sometimes even playing off against the hum of background synths. With this the songs possess a greater sense of internal narrative, even catchiness of all things, playing off of this deft sense of rhythm to draw out and develop a variety of melodies to sort of gurgle-squeals you would expect vocally. Yet they’re somewhat manhandled by the guitars which while lacking some variety really aren’t like anything else in the subgenre right now.

Those are arguably one of the weaker elements, not really a crippling flaw but otherwise rather plain amidst the wildly creative riffing. The drumming has a similar issue as well, feeling a little too much like it plays second fiddle to the guitar and lacking the same expressiveness present. Still this is hardly enough to kneecap the project and serves as one of the freshest interpretations of the subgenre. It’s still very riff driven in a way that most of the subgenre could only hope to be, even if it would be nice to see them work that folk-sense of melody into more fast, aggressive moments. The synths as well alone are also interesting as an instrument many would see as antithetical to this subgenre. Yet their simple choice in tones works wonderfully with the forceful yet articulate tonality on display. If this band really wants to take it to the next level, up the aggression a bit, further elaborate on the keyboards, and make the drumming play a bigger role beyond just providing a framework.


Exordium Mors
As Legends Fade And Gods Die
Praetorian Sword Records – 2022

Black thrash is a genre associated with some of the most throwback un-modern attitudes outside of the NWoTHM movement. This New Zealand band had its sights set beyond ’80s South American and German barbarity with a rare technical thrash interpretation of this style. Now featuring new drummer Cameron James Sinclair (ex-Diocletian), the Exordium Mors sophomore sees an uptick in intensity and musicianship easily outdoing their 2014 debut. Immediately he makes a great first impression with fast tom fills and precise blasting, perfectly matching upper-register fretboard-fencing riffs, lacing their guitar work with both elaborate melodies and dynamic delivery. Bass audibly gallops alongside, accenting and harmonizing to the command of bewitchingly snarly shrieks, giving the band a full, fleshed-out sound that treats every instrument fairly in the mix. It’s less raw than typical stylistic entries but given the greater attention to detail that’s a fair trade.

Scythian and Craven Idol come to mind especially with the grandiose scope of the music and its warlike, mytho-historical focus as well as the slight death metal flirtations. Yet it’s played with the vibrancy and nuanced detail of bands like Deception Ignored-era Deathrow and Coroner. Its structures possess a moderately intricate unfolding narrative, giving them more meat than is typical. Utilizing the general frame of verse chorus, songs deviate from a cycle of gripping even kinda catchy riffing, elaborating upon them in an aggressive ambush of complimentary ideas. It’s carried by raw energy rather than brainy noodling but it wisely avoids getting too attached to some genuinely juicy technical playing. Just when a song might start getting too comfortable, they’ll find a new theme to knock you on your ass, staying high energy without running in circles. This is more of the ripping and tearing sort of technical thrashing than the arcane and alien sort, more Invocator or Sadus in its aggression than Cryptic Shift or Watchtower. Yet whether you’re into Hellripper or Aspid, it has something to satisfy your tastes.


Lividus
Teratorns
Independent – 2023

Vocalist Uta Plotkin (best known for her stint in Witch Mountain) and (primarily) drummer Pierce Williams from Aenigmatum, Azath, Skeletal Remains (and others) is not a team-up most would expect. With their second demo, Lividus’ unusual combination of talents further demonstrates its effectiveness, kicking off with a furious blasting buttressing spindly tremolo riffs. Uta quickly demonstrates her blackened snarls are just as vital as her soulful midrange clean singing, layering additional melody frequently against polyphony and Pierce’s artillery-ruthless attack. Hammers of Misfortune circa The Bastard comes to mind but this is far, far more rooted in death/black of the melodic variety, toning down the progressive ambiguities of last year’s Tetany EP. The other two songs tone down the aggression but only a little. More breathing room is allowed for angular melodies and expressive solos but they demonstrate themselves no less compelling at midtempo than they are speeding forth at Axis of Advance speed.

It’s a lot to take in with Pierce unleashing probably his most aggressive drumming since Azath and while the music is mostly consonant, its layered complexity is devoid of any easy ear candy. Its inaccessibility comes from just how ruthless it is wherein Uta’s highly compelling singing is the only form of mercy shown. She plays a vital role, a narrative voice and central melodic through-line, yet it is everyone else who will leave many listeners in the dust. Personally I feel the production has seen a big upgrade and the larger emphasis on concussive, layered melody is welcome. Yet I feel the mysterious, multi-faceted songwriting of the last EP is somewhat missed. Though I suppose just as that was an experiment in style, this is an experiment moreso in savagery. Either way, an incredibly promising new band.


Necrovation
Storm The Void / Starving Grave
Blood Harvest – 2023

11 years after their self-titled sophomore, this cult Swedish act returns to continue their psych-y, understatedly progressive death metal attack. Elements of their rawer Merciless/Grotesque-style blackened thrashing roots return from their ’00s material. Heavy metal-inspired melodies and ghostly harmonies waft around stampeding viciousness wrapping brainy aspirations in barbed wire savagery. If you’re familiar with Morbus Chron, Execration (Nor), Stench (Swe), and second album Tribulation, shades of that manifest here yet this is by far the most rotten and ruthless evocation of these ideas yet. It’s not averse to slower portions to let its ideas play out with more breathing room, but this air of Autopsy-esque filth pollutes the air they inhale and veils it in a funereal if otherworldly atmosphere. The songs have a few more riffs in them now, coinciding with an uptick in aggression yet they retain the S/T’s sense of pacing and moments of hypnotic contemplation.

This is an evocation of Swedish death metal quite distanced from the usual HM2 buzzsaw fare. It’s almost first wave black metal in its atmosphere, cruel and cutting in its intensity, and while “progressive” its crowd would be bands like Venenum and the sadly now defunct (German) Vitriol. While the movement it belongs to is becoming associated more with bands like Blood Incantation and Devoid of Thought, these Swedes have a sonically far more graveyard-lurking, crypt-creeping atmosphere. It’s especially impressive how it sounds like they recorded this right after the S/T, directly fleshing out its eerier aspects. Mind you, Necrovation have been here since 2003, far before “OSDM” was anything other than a distant flicker and the genre was no less overcrowded. I really cannot think of anything to improve on this beyond hopefully not making us wait another 11 years for album three.


Quercus
Verferum
MFL Records – 2019

This Czech funeral doom metal band once had a cat listed as one of the guest musicians on their debut. Sadly they only appear there but gaining a pipe organ is a fair trade-off. A long attention span is needed given the subgenre but they take this further from the get go. 4 minutes of cascading melodies punctuated by the blare of the organs abruptly stops and a long section of mellow metal-free reflection ensues for 6 whole minutes. If that is too much for you to deal with skip to the next entry on this list. If not, then enjoy the delicate buildup of lilting melodies and gradually climbing organ notes. The reward is the minor key wailing of a delicate guitar and columns of backing church-drone, riding the wave of momentum perfectly. It’s a lot to take in, more moving parts than is the norm for the subgenre, but the band make the role each one plays clear in their compositional importance.

Quercus’ strength is layering melodies and creating a sort of wall of sound effect like a slo-mo symphoblack band. A lot of it relies on the previously described buildups. They’re less “acoustic guitar hearty folk” instrumental portions, moreso basically taking out of a lot of the metallic crush yet keeping the melodic and general rhythmic framework. Drumming on that note is more involved than you typically get, given a lot of room to put in cymbal accent hits and little fills. The thrust it provides adds a layer of additional tension to the riffing while the organ provides this massive backdrop of austere melody. Their riffing is familiar if very articulate yet it’s the support of the rest of the band that makes it hit so much harder. This won’t change your mind if you don’t like this subgenre but it does demonstrate a certain finesse often lacking throughout its domains.


Nihili Locus
Lyaeus Nebularum
Terror From Hell Records – 2018

Collecting this Italian (semi-melodic) death/black/doom band’s work from ’92-’96, this compilation offers a snapshot into a strange intersection of styles during a time of immense change in metal. Hearkening to an Italian tradition of horror and atmosphere home to bands like Death SS, Mortuary Drape, Paul Chain, and Abhor, it’s pretty varied in what it presents even on individual material. Peaceville-style melodies and shrill keyboards manifest with sparse, ringing chords and hold tension like a black metal band yet communicate their melody in a doomed manner. Instances of blasting blackened death aggression manifest infrequently, turning mournful reflection into frenetic terror for temporary escapades. Even with the audio fixed up, much of this still sounds like it was recorded in some abandoned cathedral, much of it ringing and rusted with a cassette recording analog fog shrouding much of it.

If it does have one major problem, it’s that the first three songs (from ’96) are the strongest, featuring the best production, variety, and most fleshed out evocation of their ideas. The doom metal portions play more of a spacing role, helping to separate its more aggressive portions and let morbid mood seep into the experience. It’s not norsecore aggressive but there’s a lot more energy involved even for slower portions, never diminishing the occult atmosphere at all. The ’92 demo’s two tracks however are a bit more scrappy and aggressive, tossing a lot of their familiar ideas together and carrying them with raw energy. Then comes the ’94 demo, settling into its most doomy and evil, kvlt sound if its most unwieldy. There appears to be two rehearsal tracks afterwards based on recording quality (date of recording unknown), basically a continuation of the ’94 demo just even rawer and more primitive. A bit inconsistent but fascinatingly heavy on foggy Italian evilness.

Cover art by William Bao.

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