Zealotry – At the Nexus of all Stillborn Worlds
Zealotry are an unusual band in a time when the surreal and otherworldly are quickly becoming the norm for death metal. Beginning 2005, they had their debut demo in 2009, an unusual and somewhat disjointed mixture of Finnish style melodies and experimental tonalities wrapped in contorted and eerily bending shapes. From 2011 to 2016, this idea was greatly expanded on with an impressively wide array of counterpoint arrangements and a wide variety of riffing at once abstract in their half-dissonant half-melodic shape and yet densely grounded in over two decades of death metal tradition. Since then, other bands old and new have come to join them such as Nex Carnis, Ghoulgotha, StarGazer, Blood Incantation, The Chasm, Undersave, VoidCeremony, Unausspreclichen Kulten, and Auroch, in a broad style neither old nor new school I’ve come to refer to as the “eldritch” death metal movement. Along with the emergent psychedelic movement (Obliteration, Cult of the Head, Diskord, Morbus Chron, Temisto, Necrovation, Ghastly, Venenum, etc.) it is providing the death metal genre an artistic renaissance some might say is at the level of the legendary period of 1989 to 1993. Having undergone yet another line-up change, this time adding Calcemia guitarist Jake Himelfarb and relegating Roman Temin to compositional and vocal duties, Zealotry have captured the essence not only of this emergent movement in their finest work yet but a chilling monument to the anxious, creeping, all-consuming terror of death metal in a form that defies easy classifications or pigeonholing.
The Nexus of All Stillborn Worlds will not be unfamiliar to those who have followed their prior albums but it features a number of changes to their sound. The most obvious of which is the increased riff-driven heaviness and the further enhanced level of technical finesse present. A dense sound with a jagged lower register attack characterizes a larger portion of this album with the suffocating clouds of twin-guitar lattice-network creeping that defined the last album more select in its application. While the influence of Univers Zero style chamber-prog is still very prominent along with a hypnotic Finnish touch, joining that is a notable level of Gorguts though it is derived from their grittier origins in Considered Dead and The Erosion of Sanity, gradually developing understated melodies through sharply organized riffing patterns. Other times it is reminiscent of Danish legends Iniquity in its usage of complex patterns of tightly executed semi-doomy percussive riffing connected in carefully paced passages Serenadium. These sorceries are kept together by an incredibly involved rhythm section courtesy of drummer Alex Zalatan and session bassist Aodán Collins. They do an incredible job of counterpointing the beehive like level of activity of both guitars. Aodan even gets a number of wild bass guitar solos rivalling their own axemaster Phil Tougas’ of Chthe’ilist infamy on top of having a number of highly distinct lines swirling and shuddering beneath the thousand-limbed guitar parts. He’s never content to follow root notes with nearly every minute of the EP featuring some memorable lick or harmony. Alex fits a wide variety of fills, some simple and others like descending staircases of complexity, constantly finding all kinds of little niches and pockets to cap off seemingly every single riff. He’s impressive with both his restraint and keen ear for being able to fit technique to compositional needs, matching the rest of the band in terms of raw intensity and carefully layered complexity alike.
On the vocal and lyrical frontier, Roman Temin (who joined TOH for a podcast that featured two new songs) displays his finest work yet. Able to divert more focus to the two, his resonant voice seems to have become deeper though he doesn’t really pull off any Craig Pillard (Incantation) style sustained bassy growls. Cadenced and tenacious, the raw venomous intent behind his lines is offset by the hollow dry tone of his delivery. There’s a disturbingly human element to this, a clarity in enunciation and phrasing uncommon in the genre. And how fortunate we are for that; the lyrical content that follows is some of the most creative in the genre’s recent years. “Universal Deceit” is a poetically analytical look at the layers of absurdity, exploitation, and isolation that has become the quietly horrific norm for generations. While bemoaning and attacking modern day living is no stranger to metal, Zealotry are among the few who can do so without falling prey to reactionary semi-luddite rambling or “we live in a society” tier superficiality. Others like “The Hole” and “The Sky Bleeds Nightmares” dwell in realms of eldritch horror, with horrific tales of imprisonment by misshapen and cruel captors and the nightmarish incursion of consciousness-devouring insectoid predators respectively. The highlight however is “Irredeemable” and its masterful blend of the mythic and the modern; the cycles of tyranny, paranoia, and deception on high as observed by an ancient observer, tasked with the mission of bringing about some grand enlightenment of his own interpretation. It’s a masterful example of metal’s tendency to capture something mythic within the modern, with the romanticism of Primordial or even Arch-era Fates Warning yet capturing something almost subconsciously evocative in powerfully broad strokes about the folly of human leadership and the toll it takes on those forced to survive the dysfunctional world that ensues. That sums their lyrical focus up well; horror both intra and extra personal wrapped up in a darkly fantastical yet far from pulpy dimension ever teetering on or outright descending into the gaping maw of collapse.
Tying their lyrical storytelling and instrumental prowess together are studiously written compositions that manage to wrap a dizzying level of complex detail within towering, unfurling structures initially bewildering in their depth. Whereas the prior albums worked within the tectonic motions of enormous and heavily packed textures or leapfrogging progressions through the interplay of melody and dissonance, At The Nexus of Stillborn Worlds gradually draws out a wider and more intricate sense of thorough composition. Weaving unsettling pseudo-melodies through dense rhythms and from selective polyphony, Zealotry structure their songs in a way some have described as “linear”, shorthand for stacking riffs one atop of the other with little repetition (though all music is linear if you simply are following whatever’s played next), but “narrative” would better describe this approach. Save for an interlude track, the album’s eight songs retain a strong sense of theme in spite of the multifaceted nature of each composition and tendency for dizzying displays of purposefully disorienting soundscapes. While this approach has existed in many forms as far back as the early to mid 80’s, it is only recently it has become a very notable approach for death metal. Zealotry’s approach however is quite different from Cruciamentum and Horrified however, opting for an approach that melds the seeming chaos of classic death metal with a strategic, almost supernatural sense of direction and placement.
Tracks tend to begin with dense, almost disjointed rhythmic onslaughts or ambiguously toned frequently doomy melodies and serve as a template out of which a particular motif or theme is gradually metamorphosized out like insects’ life cycles. Disconnected shards of melody progressively gain coherence through altering forms of harmonization and oblique riff phrasings, altering shape as they are dissected and explored across a wide variety of forms with studious contrapuntal exchanges. Lower register guitar work contrasts but also continues themes as they move between more demanding sections in an understated manner. Through breaking up lengthy exchanges and embellishing core ideas in a more grounded manner, they play a vital role in retaining coherency. Adding to this, Phil’s and Aodan’s soloing will dazzle listeners but also breaks up momentum, serving as the album’s checkpoints as they explosively climax rapidly building tension.
Within this labyrinthine journey they appear at first to drift and wander away from riffs established just long enough to make a strong impression before tearing away into a thousand-limbed assault of Lovecraftian proportions or the desolate spaciousness of bleakly wandering chords. It has the appearance of near random riff-salad at first but functionally by doing so they can juxtapose differing ideas and gradually work them into the vigorous tugging, gnashing, shifting motions. They converge on thematic undercurrents through the tangled morass of these ever twitching, scurrying rhythms and create an effect akin to stalking (or being stalked by) some elusive camouflaged predator through a series of arching underground pathways. It’s a risky, dangerous approach to songwriting and their particular aesthetic alone will present a lot of problems for those who prefer much more straightforward death metal but this funereal dance between the visceral and the astral gives them a command of both texture and structure matched by few either modern or classic. All of this is done in songs that mostly stay within the four to five-minute range yet can feel much longer due to the sheer level of content and how smoothly it’s communicated, an impressive feat after The Last Witness and its mostly six to nine-minute length tracks.
Easily the year’s finest death metal release so far, At The Nexus of All Stillborn Worlds continues Zealotry’s practice of refreshingly contemporary death metal that at once defies the shadow of traditional expectations and standardized modern practices yet manages to find a path beyond both, citing from all manner of tradition and experimentation. Never does it lose sight of its own powerful vision; its influences run the gamut from the genre’s early 90’s landmarks to the intimidating avant-garde realms of prog yet integrated so smoothly as to be almost unnoticeable at first. At 42 minutes, it neither overstays its welcome nor does it end too quickly. The logic that dictates its every shift in tempo and sudden break into tormented interdimensional hellscapes is alien at first but the passage of each track reveals its secrets in regimented, orderly motions whose visions of the subjugation and parasitism embedded in modern civilization itself and terrors borne of realms unknown and not meant to be known capture something unsettling and disturbing about the human condition. 2018 for the most part feels somewhat wanting after the colossal period from 2009 to 2017 when death metal’s true artistic renaissance exploded. Zealotry don’t have much competition from this year but even giants like Lantern, Phrenelith, Contaminated, Chthe’ilist, Tomb Mold, and Dead Congregation would have trouble topping what is their finest work yet. Standing at the interstice between convention and transgression, Zealotry have released the finest death metal album of 2018. Recommended listening for anyone interested in seeing the horrid things awaiting where the genre’s future resides.
4.5 Deep Space Antediluvian Toilets