Aging. It’s a characteristic inalienable from the human experience. It is coveted by the young, resented by the old, and provides us with some damn good cheese and alcohol. Culture and society also evolve, dissolve, and restructure themselves as we grow older. What felt hip and new in our childhoods, seemingly such a short time ago, is now relegated to nostalgia porn. Most of us still have a Furby or two, Pokemon cards, and/or an N64 to prove this statement correct. Yet with longevity on this earth come increased opportunities for wisdom and insight; the honing and perfecting of skills learned in our youth. Some embrace this, while others view such progress with contempt. Thus is our inescapable condition.
The same could be said regarding the current condition of death metal.
As Immolation proved earlier this year, one can age with power and magnitude, only increasing one’s stature as the past becomes a launch pad to an even more nuanced and aggressive future. Metallica, Megadeth, Anthrax, and Slayer also tested this theorem in 2016, to mixed results. Age does not always sit well with metal bands, but many try to use their longevity to their advantage, releasing albums 25+ years into their career. This month, Obituary, equally loved and reviled death metal legends, join the ranks of veteran bands trying their hand at perfection through age.
Obituary needs little introduction. The band was spawned from the influential Florida death metal scene of the late 1980s and early 1990s alongside bands such as Death, Morbid Angel, Atheist, Deicide, and a veritable flotilla of other acclaimed death metal acts. Their first three albums, Slowly We Rot, Cause of Death, and The End Complete are widely considered as classics in the early years of death metal’s evolution. Despite early success, the band dissolved in 1997, with members spending multiple years on side projects such as Six Feet Under, Lowbrow, Catastrophic, and touring with Andrew W.K. Since reuniting in 2003, their output has arguably failed to reach the glorious heights of their earliest output. Now we have the band’s tenth full length, self-titled record. Unfortunately, the results leave something to be desired.
Let’s start with the positives, namely John Tardy’s vocals. Fault Obituary for what you will, but it’s hard to find something negative to say about Tardy’s nasty, full-throttle delivery. From start to finish, Tardy delivers an absolutely infectious performance, mixing elements of thrash and death metal growls and yells that have only increased in effectiveness as he ages. He is the uncontested highlight of the record. The first two tracks on the record, “Brave” and “Sentence Day” blast through their death metal classicist progressions with aplomb and undeniable energy, and present an incredibly fun combo of old school death metal dynamics and chugging riffs from guitarists Trevor Peres and Kenny Andrews. After the first two tracks, however, a pattern emerges that eventually keeps the album from transcending the ranks of “just okay” death metal releases.
There are two main culprits that keep this album tethered firmly to the ground: repetitious, generic songwriting and overall production. While the first two tracks, with their blistering speed and fun atmosphere, engage immediately, it is astonishing how quickly that jolt of exhilaration turns to bland repetition. Most tracks on this record sound similar to one another, and follow very familiar, straightforward songwriting techniques. While simplicity is not inherently a bad thing, it works against Obituary in this case. While playing with differences in tempo, “Lesson in Vengeance”, “End it Now”, “Kneel Before Me”, and “It Lives” each feel like they are just variations on a theme, and not incredibly diverse variations at that. While the instrumentation here is, as always, competent and lively, there are few sections within these tunes that are memorable after multiple listens.
Another aspect of this overall sense of sameness to the record is the production. While you will find few people who adore the sound and fury of the glory days of death metal more than myself, the production and mixing job on this record is clear and spacious, but is almost entirely lacking in creative dynamics and is on the whole just flat-out dull. Genuinely, that is the best way to describe the way this record sounds. There is so little bite to the mix and tones emphasized on this record, and this lack of ingenuity does a disservice to the fun musicianship and passionate vocal performance present within this record, which is a true disappointment.
That is not to say that there aren’t any tracks outside of the first two that are enjoyable. “Betrayed” in particular is an absolute ear worm that will most likely cause many a neck injury due to its catchy and memorable hook and shredding solo. Each component on this track fits together wonderfully, and feels heavy and very much like the Obituary that many metalheads know and love. Andrews has some fun and brief solos that add flair to the monotony of this record’s less impactful tracks, and the band play on the whole like a tight unit that understands their strengths and attempts to play to them. Unfortunately, none of these elements are enough to lift this album from its overall feel of generic, pre-packaged old school death metal.
Age is a strange thing. It benefits, debilitates, and creates odd stasis in equal measure. With this record, Obituary find themselves in an odd place, where heralding back to the glorious past cripples the present. Let’s hope a closer examination of what made them legendary propels them to greater fortune in the future.
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Obituary is out now via relapse records, and can be purchased here.