Swedish blackened post-hardcore/crust/metalcore project Totem Skin were a truly cutting-edge band by the time they released what would be their swan song, 2015’s Weltschmerz. Whereas blackened-anything is just about as common in extreme music now as it is at your local Chili’s, Weltschmerz was a lightning-in-a-bottle snapshot of a carefully and perfectly balanced amalgam of styles at a time where so many bands were just starting to take their blackened-whatever training wheels off (thanks, Sunbather). Unfortunately, Totem Skin’s disbandment in early 2017 ensured that we’d never hear if they could match wits with the likes of Bosse de-Nage’s All Fours or Oathbreaker’s Rheia, the only two albums that could stand toe-to-toe with Weltschmerz. (Seriously, has there been anything else?) It seems so rarely a band finds their footing and hits their stride so well only to gas out in their prime, but all was not lost. The group has continued on in a number of other projects. Vardagshat, for instance, proved that these Swedes still have the gusto to rip some faces; though their disposition is decidedly more direct, their stylistic palette absent of blackened char and panoramic shifts.
Fortunately, the Totem Skin torch is more faithfully carried on by guitarist Christoffer Öster in the form of Dödsrit, albeit with a change of sonic priorities. The eponymous 2017 release keyed in on much of Totem Skin’s multi-genre appeal, but it also streamlined the blend, exchanging persistent bedlam for atmosphere, space, and drama. In the same way, Spirit Crusher channels its frustration, disappointment, and grief with measured patience. The brick-to-the-face wake-up calls of Totem Skin’s hardcore past are still present across the record, but the relentless Converge-type approach of stacking deathblow riff after riff after riff has vanished. Instead, Spirit Crusher is more methodical, distancing these outbursts from one another without losing momentum – or more importantly – the listener’s attention.
Dödsrit masterfully develops some auditory anesthetic through many of the record’s beautiful, sprawling moments. As quickly as “Aura” flourishes from its echoed tremolo opening into breakneck blast beats, it subsequently shifts (via nothing other than a delightfully schticky pick scrape) into speedy, crusty, melody-driven locomotion. The arrangements and timing are spot-the-fuck on here (as they are across the album), shrewdly transitioning from one passage into the next. So instead of burning the whole shit to the ground and starting anew from this point, things slacken, slow down, and open up. The track eventually winds down to a subdued and solitary guitar that anchors the next three minutes, growing from an entrancing curiosity to a comforting expectancy. The ensuing eruption becomes something that isn’t a product of contrived juxtaposition of intensity, but instead an astute long con. Each time (even after repeat listens when you know it’s coming) there is a sense of genuine surprise, a satisfying resolution to the tension that was developed. It’s so effective it even plays out similarly in the latter half of the song, yet still feels fresh, natural, and meaningful.
Where other post-black acts depend on this high contrast ebb-and-flow style to maximize the effects of their explosive heaviness or delicate sensibilities, Dödsrit’s approach is more thorough, meticulous. There’s a significant development that occurs throughout both the snowballing post-y moments and amidst its d-beat peaks. In a sense, “Ändlösa ådror” and “A drowning voice” are the speedy, aggressive counterparts to the epic, plodding bookends of Spirit Crusher, yet these tracks feature some of the album’s widest and most spectacular expanses. Dödsrit is above the on/off, dark/light, and brash/beautiful dichotomies at the flip of a switch, rarely are beautiful passages so utterly disarming or has blackened crust charged so hard. The richness of these elements is just as impressive as Öster’s ability to pull them together, bleed one progression into the next, or hold back to create a gut-punching deluge.
Spirit Crusher is the kind of result only achieved through a deep understanding of its underlying influences. The lines between black metal, crust punk, and post-metal is rarely as simultaneously blurry and so well-defined. Most of this album is fairly compartmentalized and heterogeneous, but the ways in which Dödsrit navigates these compositions couldn’t be more impressive. It’s consistently stimulating throughout these influences and takes the time to make the pieces fit, regularly rewarding listeners instead of spinning arduous threads. When so many albums today are cobbled together like Dr. Frankenstein’s monster, it’s reassuring to know there are a few surgeons out there, and Spirit Crusher demonstrates how much of a difference that can make.