Welcome to the first installment of Death’s Door in 2018! Wipe your feet on the mat, pull up a bone chair, and grab a flagon of the Blood of the Nonbelievers. We have much to discuss. It’s been a minute.
Firstly, I would like to posit an inquiry: What in the hell is happening with the beginning of this year? It’s not right. January is notoriously the doldrums when it comes to new music. It’s shitty album central, and one of the few glorious months where I get to offer a pile of gleefully negative reviews as a sacrifice to our Infernal Underlords for their bountiful provision of kickass material over the past several months. But alas, there are so few crap releases to be had. Where are my terrible albums?! ALL IS WRONG IN THE UNDERWORLD!!!
Bellyaching aside, holy hell. This has been an absolutely titanic month for excellent death metal. It’s like arbitrary measurements of time are irrelevant and death metal just keeps trucking along like it’s still 2017. I cannot remember a January release cycle in recent memory that brought forth this much fantastic material from bands young and old. This influx of fantastic releases this early in the year is just one further indicator that the ascendance and dominance of death metal hasn’t slowed in the slightest. It’s honestly the absolute best and we cannot wait to share our picks for the month with you. As is tradition, Scott (from here on out to be referred to only as Scoot McGoot) joins me in presenting to you the premium content. Post your picks for the month in the comments. We’ve missed you.
Cream of the Crop
Portal – Ion (experimental death metal/interdimensional chaos)
Imagine yourself an audience member in a large, dark auditorium. Before you is a stage, its milky and translucent curtain closed, with otherworldly silhouettes dancing a macabre ballet behind it. You can hear their singing, see the gargantuan shadows of their jagged and unnatural spasms of movement, listen to their cries of pain and terror, but cannot truly see anything beyond this ominous partial presentation. Is the horror being witnessed a trick of the light, a side-effect of the fear of the unseen? What do we actually have to be afraid of? Now imagine this curtain very suddenly being drawn, revealing on that stage in all clarity and reality horrors even more terrifying than you could have possibly conjured in your mind. All obfuscation is removed from this presentation, the veil torn, the shadows made real, and your mind enveloped by utter madness, your new reality more horrifying than the dream.
Portal’s new record Ion is in many ways the musical equivalent to the scenario above. For two decades, the band has shrouded itself in mystery and an overtly oppressive atmosphere, both in live presentation and in the production of their records. The Curator’s whispered snarls cloaked in Victorian garb and clock-like helmet, Horror Illogium’s hooded face and insanity-inducing guitar work, and the band’s overall live aesthetic have become legendary since their storied inception, and the murky, almost impenetrable nature of the production values on their records is equally conspicuous. Albums like Outre’, Swarth, and Vexovoid peddled such an overwhelming sense of all-consuming atmosphere that one needed to listen to each record a multitude of times in order to decipher what was happening behind that curtain of murk and gloom. Ion changes this motif dramatically by presenting the band’s most utterly clear and pristine production work yet, allowing the sheer instrumental and technical mastery, songwriting insanity, and lyrical terror to be heard in all of its full glory. Most surprisingly, this direction takes nothing away from the magnitude of Portal’s bizarre, uncompromising musical vision, instead highlighting everything that makes this band the unique and mesmerizing entity they have become and still remain.
For those fearful of a declawing of the band’s more intimidating sonic elements, rest at ease. Opening track “Nth” gives longtime fans plenty of dramatic, atmospheric tension to prepare for the guitar-based maelstrom ahead. Such atmospheric interludes pop up at a few points during the album, creating just enough breathing space for listeners to avoid the sensation of total suffocation. The first such instance of audio annihilation manifests itself in “Esp Ion Age”, which opens Ion’s instrumental floodgates with an unrelenting barrage of blasting, rolling drums and utterly insane guitar pyrotechnics, all presented in the band’s new cleaner, clearer production aesthetic. The technicality of the instrumental work takes center stage throughout the record because of the lack or murkiness present, allowing the listener to dissect the off-kilter melodies and maddeningly fast riffs with more ease than ever before. But the brilliance of Ion lies in this clarity making the music no less stupefying. There are no other bands in death metal (or, frankly, metal at large) writing music this bizarre, and the complexity behind these obtuse arrangements is now more plainly evident than ever.
“Husk” is a fantastic example of this, with the track packing enough ideas into three minutes of music than most bands do in an entire album. Album single “Phreqs” is even better in the context of the rest of the album, churning and roiling with a manic energy that serves as a highlight of the record. This emphasis on these musicians’ technical mastery does not negate from the sheer terror of the band’s lyrical content and sonic direction, however. The album’s centerpiece, “Crone”, may be the most unsettling track the band has yet written, allowing The Curator’s lyrical obsessions to run wild, leading to a terror-inducing plea for all within hearing range to “pray for sickness” as the guitars loop insanely just behind that raspy whisper for the tracks final minute. It’s a stark, fantastic track that will go down as one of the band’s best. All of this madness is brought to a stunning conclusion in “Olde Guarde”, Portal’s longest track to date, clocking in at nearly ten minutes. It’s a fittingly dynamic close to an album of utter sensory overload.
However significant the barrier to entry for a band like Portal may be, after Ion it would be incredibly difficult to deny their obvious and transcendent talent. These are musicians and songwriters with truly unique voices who know exactly what they want to say, and take their sweet time preparing that message. While the debate regarding which album in the band’s discography reigns supreme will most assuredly continue to rage unabated, Ion stands as a towering monument to what makes Portal the incredible band they are. Their status as death metal legends remains intact, and it will be a difficult task to unseat this record from my best-of list for 2018. A titanic achievement.
Best of the Rest
Decrescent – Blackened Bequest (melodic tech death)
If there’s one thing Jonathan and I have been faulted on since the impetus of Death’s Door, it’s our apparent preference for innovation over death metal that’s simply good for what it is and gets the job done. Part of me feels compelled to respond that being entertained and challenged by music aren’t mutually exclusive, but for the moment, I’ll digress. There certainly is at least some truth to the notion that quality death metal can be exactly that: well-written and performed death metal that doesn’t break the mold so much as fires fresh clay in an antique urn. With this in mind, I present Decrescent, a Wisconsin-based band that somehow manages to remind me why I loved the death metal and deathcore I loved in my formative years while simultaneously improving upon all the qualities I enjoyed. By focusing the greatest strengths of The Black Dahlia Murder, Carnifex and The Faceless through a lens of fresh songcraft and technicality, Blackened Bequest is the rare modern death metal album that masters inventive nostalgia.
Perhaps the best example of this in action arrives deep in the tracklist with “Planetary Corruption.” Bouncy, melodic riffing and tight, fast-paced drumming propel the track forward with sneering confidence and energy, striking a perfect balance between TBDM’s Nocturnal, Carnifex’s Until I Feel Nothing and The Faceless’ Akeldama. Yet, as the track develops, furrows of intrigue unveil themselves, as progressive flourishes enter the fold with distinct vibes of Death and Decrepit Birth. With precision and ease, Decrescent bring together accessible and complex elements from the death metal playbook, making the listener feel comfortable before surprising them with a brutal treat. The remainder of the album is equally infectious, with layers of catchy chord progressions wrapping around lock-step percussion that’s truly the driving force of the album’s consistent pounding intensity. It’s albums like Blackened Bequest that make me wonder if our aforementioned detractors have a point; why should we always focus on time signatures and dissonance when there are albums like this dedicated to doing what they do well and achieving stellar results?
Hooded Menace – Ossuarium Silhouettes Unhallowed (death-doom)
Over four fantastic records and over a decade of output, Hooded Menace have established themselves as death-doom stalwarts, and a band that can be relied upon to unleash exceedingly good content on a regular basis. Nothing about this has changed in reference to their fifth record, Ossuarium Silhouettes Unhallowed. It is absolutely fantastic, and a worthy addition to their already exceptional catalog. But this particular record is more than just another solid entry in a solid career. Taking the things that they do best and incorporating new elements into their sound, Hooded Menace achieves a new balance of traditional diSEMBOWELMENT-esque death-doom with the incorporation of enough beautifully realized melody to rival that of melodeath institutions like Horrified or Dark Tranquility. This is a phenomenal record that is different from anything else the band has yet released and is all the better for it.
When viewing bands across the death metal spectrum that set their sights on a more melodic sound, there is often a fear among listeners that some level of aggression and intensity will be lost with the enhancement of melody. Thankfully, such a relinquishing of heft is not present throughout Ossuarium Silhouettes Unhallowed, which contains enough world crushing riffs to fill up an inferior death-doom band’s entire back catalog. “Sempiternal Grotesqueries” kicks off with a perfect example of the mixture of heaviness and melody, as Lasse Pyykko’s lead guitar sails through an epic melodic passage stacked atop Teemu Hannonen’s crushing rhythm work, the song slowly churns itself into a thick froth of death-doom goodness, including some good old fashioned chugging juxtaposed against Otso Ukkonen’s fantastically varied and propulsive drum work. This mixture of elements peppers the entire record, with “In Eerie Deliverance” delivering an absolutely crushing passage about one minute into the festivities, followed by “Cathedral of Labyrinthine Darkness” slowing down the pace to a molasses-smothered crawl, only for some of that speed to be revitalized about halfway through subsequent track “Cascade of Ashes”. All of these twists and turns in the album’s tempo and emphasis on melody and heaviness find their true home in “Charnel Reflections”, which is one of the most stirring and mesmerizing tracks the band has yet written. Surging all the way to the album’s incredibly satisfying finale, Ossuarium Silhouettes Unhallowed offers some of the most intricate and well-executed material of the band’s career.
Everything about this album, from the production to the performances and newfound emphasis on melody, fits so well that it’s exceedingly difficult to find any flaws. One of the best examples of modern melodeath-doom I’ve heard, Hooded Menace continue to impress and surprise with a sonic evolution that is as fitting to their career trajectory as it is stunningly realized, and absolutely deserve the legendary status they’ve been bestowed. Sure to show up on many year-end lists in 2018.
Pestilence – Hadeon (progressive death metal)
2017 saw a significant revival of death metal’s old guard, with several albums being released by some of the subgenre’s all-time greats. Results were mixed, as the quality of this material ranged from good (Incantation and Dying Fetus) and decent/middling (Morbid Angel and Origin) to piss poor (god… that Suffocation record). If January is any indication, 2018 is continuing this revival with the arrival of Pestilence’s 8th studio record Hadeon, their first since 2013’s much-maligned Obsideo. So how does it stack up to the recent releases of death metal’s old guard, as well as within the band’s own discography? After the band’s album art debacle late last year, I had my doubts as to whether or not this album would fall into the growing category of subpar releases from Pestilence. Fortunately, my fears were quickly assuaged, as Hadeon is on the whole quite far from bad.
Hadeon, in sharp contrast to their most recent material, heralds back sonically most readily to Spheres, what could probably be considered their last good to great record. The production here is pretty solid, allowing these instruments to breathe without too much compression or odd placements in the mix. I would prefer the drums a little higher in the mix at some points, but that’s a fairly frequent complaint of mine with death metal production in general. It most certainly doesn’t detract that these tracks are without question the best the band has written in well over a decade. Santiago Dobles’ lead guitar work is engaging and punishing in equal measure throughout, and Tilen Hudrap’s bass gets plenty of time to shine, especially during “Manifestations”. Patrick Mameli’s vocals are as wretched and effective as they’ve been since the band’s inception, as he growls his way through these tracks with an enviable vitality and diversity, namely during the album’s first certified banger “Non Physical Existent”. The performances here all around are exceptional and combine to create an album that is both very fun to listen to and not without substance for death metal diehards.
Hadeon sees Pestilence back on the track of success, which is a welcome return to form. With the glut of Atheist and Cynic imitators populating the scene, it’s very refreshing to see one of the bands that took this sound in interesting and exciting directions get back to what they do best: Progressive, slightly groovy death metal. Hadeon does this, and for it is a definitive success.
Violent Opposition – Utopia / Dystopia (deathgrind/mathgrind)
Beyond having an awesome name that wears its ethos on its sleeve, Horror Pain Gore Death Productions has become a rising champion of underground death metal. Their roster is stacked with the kind of gruesome, bloodthirsty bands you turn to when you want some filthy, uncompromising death metal; I featured Blood Freak last year as a shining example of this. So naturally, one of my first stops for new death metal this year was good ‘ol reliable HPGD, and lo an behold, they’ve presented another brutal gem courtesy of Violent Opposition. We’ve typically left grind and its offshoots for Matt to drool over in Grind My Gears, but with deathgrind this good, it’s difficult not to want to throw our weight behind what Utopia / Dystopia has to offer.
At their core, Violent Opposition offers the kind of meticulous, airtight deathgrind fans of Cephalic Carnage, Neuraxis the like have come to expect. But beyond the razor-sharp drumming and angular, technical riffs, there’s a voracious spirit accented by a bass-heavy delivery and jazzy flourishes that offer an air of playfulness and plain old fun. Whether its six-minute bouts of technical prowess like “Lies Pollute the Mind” and “Possessions Foster Distrust” or any of the numerous one-to-two-minute slugfests, Violent Opposition never strays away from packing just the right amount of flash and brutality into the exact song length they see fit to compose. This is attention-grabbing death metal for listeners who want to be dazzled and pulverized at the same time.