The journey of Californian death metal stalwarts Decrepit Birth has been an interesting one to follow: from their impetus in 2003 as a relatively straightforward brutal death metal band following the mold set in place by Suffocation, the group’s three albums across the ensuing decade have seen a dramatic shift in their music. Their followup to debut record And Time Begins came in the form of 2008’s Diminishing Between Worlds, an album that saw the brutality tempered with a combination of melodic influence pulled from Human- to Symbolic-era Death and an enormous step up in the complexity of their tracks. This was a positive change in pretty much every way; a band that was once merely serviceable within their genre was now doing something far more extraordinary.
A couple years later, and Decrepit Birth followed up with Polarity, which took the changes made on Diminishing Between Worlds to the next level. That’s not to say it was a better album overall – there was a sense of visceral punchiness lost in the lacking brutality – but it was nearly as good as its immediate predecessor, and Decrepit Birth looked like they were on the up-and-up to become one of death metal’s bands to really keep a close eye on.
It’s now been seven years since the release of Polarity. The band never really “went away,” to speak, and kept performing and touring on occasion, but no new music emerged until earlier this year. That’s an enormous wait for a new album, especially from a band with so much forward momentum. Needless to say, the hype surrounding Axis Mundi is immense because of this. The stakes are high: the band’s last two albums showed a well of inspiration that was far from running dry, it’s a return to form in a sense because of the wait, and it’s the perfect moment in technical death metal for a landmark album to drop and send everyone back to the drawing board. The stars are completely aligned, and if Decrepit Birth can succeed at delivering their third great album, this could be an instant classic. So, the question looms. Does Axis Mundi have what it takes to make this happen? Well… not really. Decrepit Birth has gotten a lot right here, but there are a couple substantial flaws in the way of Axis Mundi being the album it could be. The error here is twofold: some of it comes from the music itself, and some comes from the production.
During the writing of this album, the band stated that they were planning on returning to a style more reminiscent of And Time Begins, i.e. one where multifaceted, complex riffs are stripped back in favor of a more simplified, streamlined, brutal approach. Their rendition of brutal death metal still involves a good deal of technicality and the band remains more melodic than any of their peers, but in comparison to the almost-progressive nature of their past two albums, the step backwards towards a sound that evokes more of their earliest work isn’t necessarily the best step to be taking. Tracks like “Epigenic Triplicity” and “Transcendental Paradox” cycle through brutal death metal riffs that are competent but nothing more. And let’s stick with “Transcendental Paradox” for a second: a little bit after the one-minute mark, the track opens up into a very melodic territory and points towards an interesting direction, which is followed by… a return to the exact same riff as before. We see this back-and-forth again, after which the rest of the song consists of more straightforward brutal death metal riffing until the very end, at which point we get a slightly different rendition of the same melody we got before.
“Transcendental Paradox” is all of the problems with the songwriting of Axis Mundi in microcosm. There are some really, truly clever ideas here, and Decrepit Birth’s melodic voice is so much more engaging than a sizable chunk of their genre compatriots, but these bursts of inspiration are shackled to run-of-the-mill death metal that fails to hold the attention nearly as well. It’s not that the more brutal parts are even bad in their own right, they just pale in comparison so much to what stands in juxtaposition to them.
The production also does not bring out the best in the band. Decrepit Birth’s weak point has consistently been their vocalist, whose growl is monotonous and lacks enunciation. In the production of their previous records, though, the vocals were adequate, given that they weren’t placed particularly high in the mix and tended to cede the focal point of attention to the instrumentation. Here, they take center stage, and it starts to wear on the listener in quick fashion. Combine this with super chunky, heavily-produced guitar tones, snappy drums and an overall extremely loud master, and Axis Mundi becomes an album that can be heavily fatiguing to listen to. It doesn’t destroy the music, but it’s a prominent roadblock in the way of enjoying what this record has to offer.
Ultimately, the way Axis Mundi comes across is that it’s chronologically displaced. This album sounds as though it was written between And Time Begins and Diminishing Between Worlds; it contains the first inklings of what would later become the hypermelodic brutal-leaning techdeath of the latter, supplanted between the more standard brutal death metal fare of the latter. By no means is this a bad record, but it’s just not up to the standard that Decrepit Birth have set for themselves with their last two releases. This isn’t a total stumble for the band, but it is a regrettable misstep in a couple big ways, so let’s hope that album five sees the band back on their feet.
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Decrepit Birth releases Axis Mundi on July 21st through Nuclear Blast in the US and Agonia Records everywhere else. You’ll be able to stream it on every major site and you can preorder it here if you live in the US, or here if you live somewhere else.