The Vexing Allure of Sepulcros

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Wandering in unfamiliar depths.

I may have remarked once or twice or every chance I got how I don’t much like death doom (doom death?). The words “slow” and “death metal” simply don’t make a good fit in my mind. Alas, leave it to Transcending Obscurity, reliable purveyors of every couleur of death, to release an album that, while not fundamentally changing my outlook, has at least intrigued and puzzled me enough that I wanted to spill some words over it. Let’s see what’s to say about the debut from Portuguese band Sepulcros.

Title track “Vazio” starts out much as I would expect from a death doom or indeed a funeral doom record. Mournful, drawn-out chords ring out, lingering in near-emptiness, underpinned by drums going at a snail’s pace. What stood out to me, however, was the production here. I associate the genre with a high-fidelity, full sound that maximizes the impact of the emotions it wants to convey. It’s not like what Sepulcros go for here doesn’t have plenty of that oomph, but there’s a peculiar grittiness to the sound. It’s not lo-fi, but certainly more grimy than I would have expected. With this, the album immediately displays a sonic quality that I value, which no doubt made it easier for it to get past my doom defenses.

The vocals fit this aesthetic very well and are another point in the album’s favour. Ranging from deeply guttural to slightly more raspy and with a dollop of reverb on top, they sound like the vocalist is gargling mud in a colossal cavern, and I dig it.

The album’s other big surprise hits about three minutes into the track. After a bit of a buildup and a minor tempo increase, the music drops out briefly only to return with an attack thoroughly unexpected in its viciousness. Suddenly, we find ourselves steeped in the absolute ugliest, aggressive kind of blackened death, as if the song was trying to violently tear down everything that was built in the preceding part. As if in anger about the lethargic sadness of the beginning, it tries to break free from the inaction that the mood conveyed.

It must be said that it feels like the music is really coming into its own in parts like these (for this is far from the only outbreak like this on the record, nor even in this song). All the characteristics of the sound I described seem immensely well suited to this style, creating a whirling, cavernous cacophony that absolutely bludgeons the listener, so despite how sudden the turn is, it doesn’t exactly feel out of place. Both this one and the second explosion of this kind a couple of minutes further into the song, which feels integrated a little better, only last briefly though. The anger cannot be sustained for long, the inertia of the album’s default mood can’t really be outrun, so it keeps plummeting back into the depths of its torturous, filthy crawl.

Third track “Marcha Funebre” brings a surprise of a less awesome kind. Picking up the sounds from the atmospheric intro track “Involucro Oco” is a nice touch, but it’s almost like this is the only thing differentiating this track from the one we’ve just heard. It hits all the same beats, even down to how it punctuates its beginning part with hits on the ride cymbal: you’ve got the slow tempo, then the sudden switch to violence, the fall back into doom, the second, slightly less drastic turn to the aggressive side, and then more doom. This is essentially the same track. I’m quite puzzled by this decision, and haven’t been able to make sense of it yet.

With “Magno Caos,” we get the most consistent dose of doom. For a good 6 minutes of its runtime, the song stays in the slow tempo, allowing the band to explore it very thoroughly and really take you along with them to a dark place full of crushing melancholia. Staying with one style for a longer time proves quite effective, but eventually, the by now expected blasting part rolls around. This one is the shortest on the album, and almost feels like a token gesture at this point. I don’t really feel like it adds much to the song. Nonetheless, this and the next song are probably my favourite.

Nothing needs to be said about the structure of “Hecatombe”—we’ve already heard it twice. However, this time around, the band veers into black metal territory in both the fast and slow parts, furnishing the former with surging tremolo riffs and the latter with a depressive black metal vibe. This makes the sound feel reinvigorated, bringing some much needed new flavours to the table, not to mention proving that the band is very adept at this style. I do dig black metal a lot, so I’m probably biased, but I think the previous songs could have done with sprinklings of this to change things up a bit.

So what’s the bottom line? This is a great-sounding album that excels at conjuring both deep melancholia and sheer terror, but it’s marred by some baffling songwriting decisions. There may be some conceptual reason for why three out of the four proper tracks seem to follow the exact same template, but even then, I don’t think that excuses anything. My coming back to this album as often as I have was equally motivated by enjoyment as it was by trying to understand it. It’s very good—heck, for this genre, I’d say it’s great—but even with my limited expertise, I can’t help but feel that it could be better.

Vazio will be out on March 12 via Transcending Obscurity.

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