Yes. Hello. Welcome to Death’s Door. I’d ask you to wipe your feet on the mat, but it really doesn’t matter. Everything is covered in this infernal sludge now, so what’s the point? Ever since that damned slug made its way down here and overthrew Lucifer and his armies its been “MOLLUSCA!” this and “HAIL!” that. I for one welcome our new escargoverlord, but to be honest I kinda miss ol’ Beelzebub. But don’t tell anyone I said that. They’re always listening…
Obviously, March was a pretty good month for the music of death. While there were plenty of fantastic releases to sink one’s fangs into, it’s pretty difficult to ignore the giant mollusk in the room. More than any band in recent death metal memory, Slugdge dominated the death metal conversation over the past month. As close as you’ll get to a cinematic event in the death metal world, Esoteric Malacology has been on the blogosphere’s collective tongue with relentless and reckless abandon. In my mind, the praise is well-deserved. No “joke band” should be this good, but they are, and the music they create is no laughing matter. They’re here to slime and enslave mankind, and on that front, I can’t say I stand opposed. Long may they reign.
But there were other great releases last month as well. A whole slew of them, in fact. And Scott, Simon, and I are here to bring you the goods. Please sound off in the comments regarding any releases we missed (here’s looking at you, Rivers of Nihil junkies).
Enough idle chat. Hail Mollusca! Worship Death!
Cream of the Crop:
Slugdge – Esoteric Malacology
If you would have told me a few years back that a band whose sole lyrical and thematic universe revolved around slugs would release one of the best melodic death metal records of the year (at minimum), I probably wouldn’t have believed you. At least I wouldn’t have before I stumbled on Slugdge’s third record Dim and Slimeridden Kingdoms. Even then, you still would have found me skeptical. Slugdge’s potential as a death metal band has grown exponentially with each new release, but at some point, all surprises cease to be surprises at all, and all good things eventually come to an end. One can only take such an outlandish and goofy concept so far before the joke isn’t funny anymore. But the good times haven’t left Slugdge yet, as their fourth full-length Esoteric Malacology is far and away their best album, and one of the best releases of any kind thus far in 2018. So yes. Hail Mollusca.
I mention fun and jokes because it seems fitting for a band of this nature, but the opposite ends up being one of the reasons why Esoteric Malacology is so successful. While other “joke” bands (which I assure you Slugdge is not) build their entire discography around not taking themselves or their music seriously, Slugdge transcends this trope by writing intricate, complex, utterly fantastic death metal that is expertly performed from start to finish. Every aspect of this album is exceptional for its subgenre. Matt Moss on vocals and Kev Pearson on guitars are a death metal dream team, feeding off of one another’s intensity to create an album that is simultaneously manic and deftly controlled. Moss’ vocal work here is exceptional, jumping between guttural growls and epic, strong cleans while Pearson’s guitars heighten both the melodic and savage elements of the band’s music. This marriage of menace and grandeur can be readily heard right off the bat in opener “War Squids”, which features an opening riff that I have not been able to get out of my head since first hearing it. Moss’ work is as potent as it has ever been here, emphasizing everything he does well as a vocalist. Pearson just turns out riff after fantastic riff at a pace that is difficult to keep up with. Neither of these elements relents throughout the remainder of the record. “War Squids” bleeds directly into “Crop Killer”, which shockingly is even better than its preceding track. Taking a more prog-oriented approach, Slugdge here create a musical landscape that is as heavy as it is open and ethereal. “Spectral Burrows”, “Slave Goo World”, and “Transylvanian Fungus” create a magnificent trilogy of tracks leading up to album single “Putrid Fairytale”, which goes as hard in the guitar game as anything the band has written. Every one of these songs could get its own review, honestly. Unpacking everything this band does right would be a monumental task, made all the more daunting by the lack of things they do wrong. Outside of the programmed drums (which are a deal breaker for some), there is little to fault this gem of a record for.
What may have begun as a joke is now deadly serious. Slugdge have with Esoteric Malacology cemented their place as one of the best death metal acts working today. Whether or not you buy into the veiled socio-political imagery and slug references, it’s nearly impossible to not get swept in the grandeur of Slugdge’s sweeping musical vision. An album that is as entertaining and genuinely captivating as you’ll hear this year. Magnificent stuff.
Best of the Rest:
Augury – Illusive Golden Age
Though ever metal subgenre deviates from a stalwart style’s blueprint, death metal’s offshoots are perhaps the most eclectic and individual deviations within the metal cannon. All forms of doom metal are still ultimately low and slow with riffs galore, and black metal’s numerous incarnations over the years have still retained the core aesthetic of the genre. These aren’t bad things at all, mind you, but it’s fascinating how death metal subgenres seem to take on lives of their own. In what other genres could movements like melodeath and slam coexist under the same roof? Unlike other metal subgenres, several subgenres from death metal’s classic styles and newer movements sound almost nothing alike, which is one of the many reasons Jonathan and I are so enamored with it since first subjecting our virgin ears to the genre’s punishing sound.
While there are countless reasons to fawn over Illusive Golden Age, perhaps the album’s greatest strength is its ability to make the listener forget which death metal subgenre Augury hail from, and in doing so, the record gallops through fresh, exhilarating territory at every turn. Like many music fans, I’m often skeptical of comeback albums, even from bands like Augury whom I hadn’t previously listened to before. For every veteran gem like Gorguts’s Colored Sands, there are several more niche, deep cut death metal acts that resurface to release little more than a retreading of the past. Thankfully, as Noyan covered in our Editors’ Picks for March, this is far, far from the case when it comes to Illusive Golden Age, which is easily one of the best tech death albums of the year thus far.
With roots in technicality but branches shooting in a multiplicity of skyward formations, Augury has returned after nearly decade to prove that they haven’t missed a beat; much to the contrary, they’re several steps ahead of a decent chunk of their younger subgenre peers. At its core, Illusive Golden Age is pristine tech death on every level. The band thunders and flashes through a tempest of technicality and crushing riffs throughout, framing each track with the genre’s trademark airtight focus but leaving plenty of breathing room for outside influences. It’s these added elements that help Augury shine, as the band’s tech death formula incorporates in the brutal, ragged edges of Cryptopsy and progressive, melodic flourishes of bands like Death and Cynic. There are as many moments that stir the listener’s mind and emotions as there are crushing, pit-ready passages, with seemingly every track containing an even balance of the two. The melodic, progressive and brutal segments throughout the album ensure every listen feels fresh and bursting with hidden ideas previously left unturned by the listener. With Illusive Golden Age, Augury has created a testament to death metal as a whole; at every corner, there’s a new reminder of how diverse and exceptional the genre can be, which is no small feat for a band’s first record in nearly ten years.
Convocation – Scars Across
I’m a sucker for death-doom when done well. When I heard that Desolate Shrine’s LL was working on an album in the subgenre under the moniker Convocation, I found myself infinitely intrigued. The blackened death metal stylings of Desolate Shrine culminated in 2017 with one of my favorite albums of the year, Deliverance from the Godless Void. To say that Convocation’s debut record Scars Across met my sky-high expectations would be an understatement of the grandest order. This is exceptional death-doom composed and performed by exceptional musicians.
Containing four tracks and clocking in at fifty minutes, listeners should settle in for an expansive and brutal journey. Joined by MN of Dark Buddha Rising on vocals, LL performs every instrument on the record in addition to being the band’s principal songwriter, and his insane skill as a musician becomes readily apparent from the first few moments of opener “Disposed”. Channeling the cosmic dread of Spectral Voice, Convocation builds a death-doom sound that is unique and expansive. Through the massive guitar tone, it’s pretty easy to discern the Desolate Shrine influence in the album’s sound, but these above elements all congeal into something fascinating and fresh. Remnants of the melodic touches of Hooded Menace create a sonic undercurrent that is crystallized beneath the crushing weight of Lycus and diSEMBOWELMENT-level heaviness, which are most readily on display during “Ruins of Ourselves”. Throw in the shades of funeral doom elements along the lines of Loss found in “Allied POWs” and you have yourself a winner. The title track and album finale pulls together all of these elements into an utterly mesmerizing combination of sounds and textures, finishing the album on a magisterial high note that comes as both a sigh of relief and siren call to listen once more.
Scars Across is everything I hoped this collaboration would be and then some. If you are remotely interested in death-doom, don’t skip this one. Essential listening.
Grave Upheaval – Untitled II
Cavernous death metal has become an increasingly popular branch of the death metal tree over the past few years. Incantation-core is in, and that’s a very good thing for fans of death metal’s mid-90s heyday. But with any resurgence of subgenre trope, there comes oversaturation and a significant dip in quality, usually leading to that movements untimely fall from grace (see “Metalcore”, “Djent”, etc.). But cavernous death metal has remained niche enough to thus far avoid this fate, allowing bands like Father Befouled, Encoffination, Blood Incantation, Dead Congregation, Altarage¸and Portal to carve out lasting and impactful careers worshiping at the altar of Incantation. Australia’s Grave Upheaval is another band lurking in the underground shadows of this sound, and arguably with a greater sense of zeal than most of their peers. There are no glimmers of light to be found in any of the tracks on their second untitled full-length record. Only overwhelming, suffocating, impenetrable atmosphere accentuated by some of the filthiest and darkest death metal imaginable. As a culmination of death metal’s march to the cave, you’d be hard-pressed to find a more suitable example than this record.
Unlike many more immediate releases, one’s initial listen of Untitled II should be approached with care. This isn’t gym music, or car music, or background music. This is sitting in a dimly lit room with your headphones on staring at the dark ceiling music. This method is recommended not only for atmospheric purposes (this record should definitely be consumed in one sitting) but also due to the complexity of the music. Much like early Portal, Grave Upheaval display a great deal of instrumental and songwriting skill, drowned wholly and mercilessly in a production dynamic that is utterly suffocating. Attentive listens will allow for a greater appreciation of the band’s stalwart musicianship, displayed most readily in “II” and “IV”, which feature some unrelentingly menacing guitar arrangements. The drums punish and brutalize throughout as well, and are impressive in their mix of steely reserve and alarming brutality. It’s a brilliant instrumental combo that is only made more heinous by the vocals, which chant, groan, whisper, rage and scream with otherworldly vitality.
It’s a sensational example of dark death metal done right. Combining all of these elements into just under an hour’s worth of death metal brutalization should most certainly be enough to fill the cup of any caverncore junky, and Untitled II is about as good as this music gets.
Nightmarer – Cacophony of Terror
Nightmarer doesn’t mess around on their debut LP Cacophony of Terror. They exist to snap necks and bludgeon your eardrums into infinity. Given their pedigree, it’s not difficult to see why. Boasting members from The Ocean, War from a Harlot’s Mouth, and Gigan, there’s very little about this group that screams “light-hearted”. And that is as it should be. Taking the most brutal elements from each of these groups and mashing them together into an audio nightmare of dissonant death reminiscent of Ulsect and Ulcerate, Nightmarer make good on the promise of their individual parts to create something as menacing and heavy as you have likely heard thus far in 2018.
While the band peddles a pretty robust sound, they don’t lack for theater and atmosphere, as is evidenced in the opening prelude “The Descent”. It’s an aptly titled track, because what comes next truly does feel like being dropped into some particularly violent corner of hell. Follow-up “Sahlwald” puts the bands instrumental prowess and direction on full display, as Simon Hawemann’s guitars chug through some dissonant death metal riffs with the fervor of a deathcore juggernaut, and while this most certainly isn’t a deathcore record, vestiges of the sound can be heard in several of the album’s more chug-a-licious sections. The proceedings are made even more lethal by Paul Seidel’s impressive drum work throughout, which both grounds and elevates the rest of the music. “Death” serves as another example of the band’s ability to combine various styles into something more sinister and insidious than its individual parts, as John Collett’s vocals simmer, seeth, and writhe through a slow-burning bruiser of a track. It’s death metal at its most menacing, and it sounds uniformly great throughout. Here’s hoping this record is only the beginning for Nightmarer, because I could definitely get used to this brand of death-oriented destruction. A very solid debut.
Of Feather and Bone – Bestial Hymns of Perversion
Bestial Hymns of Perversion doesn’t run, or crawl, or crush, or really move in any of the typical ways that death metal albums tend to: it oozes. The occasionally grindy, slightly blackened lo-fi death metal the Denver trio trades in on their debut LP seeps forth; Of Feather and Bone take their sweet time getting wherever they’re going and making sure they’re the most noticeable band around when they get there. Across just over a half-hour of death metal that keeps one foot in the low-and-slow Incantation sound that’s all the rage these days and the other in a puddle of cavernous, dirty grind, Bestial Hymns packs quite the wallop, always delivering the goods exactly where and when they’re needed. Guitars churn and screech with an angular approach to melody that’s reminiscent of early Immolation, the vocals are of the “gorilla in extremely dire need of a throat lozenge” style, the production keeps everything stupid heavy all the time.
Although the instrumentation is stellar across the board, the drums really deserve a special mention. No, they’re not particularly creative – one of the complaints I have with this record is that the drumming is sometimes a little too standard – but they punctuate each riff perfectly. Far more than just dictating the music’s pace, the drums are somewhat of a roadmap to understanding the cacophony at play here: Of Feather and Bone clearly takes some of their production ideas from early-to-mid period Portal and it’s the rhythm section that helps the mind to stay afloat in the seas of riffs that Bestial Hymns provides.
It’s far from the most original or unique record we’ve got for you guys this month, but what Bestial Hymns of Perversion lacks in novelty, it makes up for in spades with songwriting that’s got rocket-powered sledgehammer levels of punch to it. It’s hard to find something that pulls off a sound this simple and stripped-back with this much aplomb and ferocity, so I’d heavily recommend you take it while you can get it. Of Feather and Bone does not fuck around.
Order ov Riven Cathedrals – Göbekli Tepe
When it comes to the infamous “sophomore slump,” bands usually fall prey to the “overreach” or the “underreach.” The former is the type of follow up album we all dread: a band succumbing to pressure, cockiness or a combination of the two and churning out a mixed bag of failed experiments. And while the latter is more common and often less disappointing, it’s still a shame when bands choose to underachieve and play it safe. Of course, somewhere between treading water and diving head first into the shallow end, there are the ideal sophomore albums that focus on one simple mantra: “do everything we do well, but better.” Though certainly easier said than done, striking this balance is a surefire way to gain and retain listeners; in the process of refining their sound, bands can improve on their weaknesses and enhance their strengths, which simultaneously satisfies existing fans and potentially wins over skeptics.
If ever there was a need to map this process out, Göbekli Tepe should be required listening to understand just how this balancing act can be achieved. When I first highlighted Order ov Riven Cathedrals’ debut The Discontinuity’s Interlude in our July 2017 installment of Death’s Door (and again as one of my top death metal albums of the year), I described their brand of tech death as a blur of airtight technicality and blistering speed that feels like Nile paired with the most astrophilic elements of Origin, supported by a newly refurbished George Kollias reborn as a tireless percussion cyborg. Though the album remains a go-to dose of unfiltered tech death speed and abrasion, I still feel like ORC was a bit too rigid throughout the album, even considering their chosen style. It seemed that the band needed to loosen up just a bit to allow their performances to feel more organic; a bit more cyborg metal rather than robot metal, if you will.
Göbekli Tepe fixes this problem and then some; put simply, this is ORC doing everything that made The Discontinuity’s Interlude successful and doing it better. The duo (still anonymous) have fleshed out their sound with more variety and intriguing elements, some rooted in death metal conventions and others doubling down on the celestial influences present on the band’s debut. The choral and orchestral synths accent more tracks than on The Discontinuity’s Interlude, and when they appear, they take on a bolder role that fleshes out each composition to achieve truly epic results. The blasts, while still meticulous and fast as ever, feel more well-placed rather than mandatory, and the drumming takes on a more fluid vibe with the riffs that flows more naturally as each composition unfolds. As a result, the technical approach takes on more progressive and heavier elements throughout, including some well-placed breakdowns that add some bludgeoning accents. The synth-accompanied breakdown on “Invocation ov the Kavod” in particular offers an excellent, Born of Osiris-esque beatdown. It’s a small piece of what makes the album a success, and if ORC keeps up their trajectory, they’ll return next year with an even more refined tech death banger.
Vastum/Spectral Voice – Split EP
Just like Vastum and Spectral Voice’s outstanding split EP, I’ll keep it short: If you are looking for a blistering assault on the senses from two of death metal’s most brutally intriguing voices, look no further. Channeling the gnarliest side of their respective discographies, this EP is only two tracks long and has enough riffs to fill a full length. Vastum’s contribution, “Gagging on a Gash”, goes hard from its opening seconds and maintains a breakneck pace throughout. There are few surprises here, and that’s a good thing because Vastum’s sound is established and excellent as is. Their sheer riff-building ability is impressive, with “Gagging” unloading an absolutely obscene amount of death metal aggression in relatively a short period of time. Spectral Voice’s side, “Katabatic Depths”, is a bit more surprising than Vastum’s entry, mainly because it finds the band operating at a level of speed that is unusual for the death-doomsters. This is a particularly fast-paced track that sees the band focusing more intently on the old school death metal components of their sound rather than the doomier aspects, hinting a bit more readily to their other project, Blood Incantation, without losing that special sense of cosmic emptiness that was so apparent in their fantastic debut. Despite the speed, the band doesn’t lose a shred of heft. In all, both of these bands are operating at peak performance here, and it shows. Cannot wait for future releases from either of these groups.