What exactly makes a good metal song or album? How does solid songwriting create a critically-acclaimed album? Some think that experimentation is the way to go, and with the recent rise in black and death metal acts that want to add different sounds—post-black metal, the new trend of “dissonant” death metal, what have you—one would think that pushing beyond, experimentation for experimentation’s sake would be an answer. But I personally think that good songwriting comes not from random experimentation, but from one’s original and honest interpretation of music. Think for a moment about what the metal community, on the whole, generally considers to be the best albums of the genre. We’ve got releases like Number of the Beast, Black Sabbath, Covenant, and Transylvanian Hunger. All great recordings, but while they might have been considered breakthroughs in their day (e.g. Sabbath’s now legendary use of the flatted fifth, Darkthrone’s tremolo riffs, etc.), they’re not much to look at in terms of experimentation now.
If someone were to release an album in this vein, they’d be instantly labeled as clones; after all, this is 2017, and music is a constantly evolving phenomenon. What those legendary albums do have to their name that keeps them legendary, however, is solid songwriting that takes the writer’s interpretation of what makes a certain genre/sound great and follow it to its competition. You don’t need to be adding free jazz and dissonance to your music to make it “good”—at the end of the day, it comes down to solid songwriting which may or may not include those elements.
These ideas of personal originality and trueness to one’s vision are what make Death Mask such a fantastic album. After all, Lord Mantis didn’t reinvent the wheel with this album. Blackened sludge isn’t some new and revolutionary genre. Charlie Fell, Bill Bumgardner, Andrew Markuszewski, and Ken Sorceron prove that the wheel of metal as a whole is fine, but they added slight retouches in their songwriting and production to it to make it their own. At the end of the day, they played some great blackened sludge (with maybe a hint of industrial metal), and came out with not only one of the best albums of 2014, but one of my favorite extreme metal albums ever.
A truly good album, regardless of genre, makes you think; it gets you interested in what’s going on in the tracks, and makes you want to sit down and do nothing but listen to it. (This doesn’t necessarily correlate to being “catchy”, though having an ear worm certainly can be a result of strong songwriting.) It puts you on a journey, in a way; it keeps you within certain strictures, as a great album will usually have some sort of sonic cohesion sewing the tracks together, but each song still feels like it has a life of its own. Think of it like Dante’s notion of Hell in The Inferno: you’re going through each circle dedicated to a certain mortal sin—lust, gluttony, wrath, anger, what have you—and while every circle has its particulars, you’re nonetheless still in Hell. It’s this type of skill that Lord Mantis brings to the table in Death Mask; every track feels like it’s part of a bigger whole, but remains a space full of intricate and singular exploration of blackened sludge.
Charlie Fell’s shrieks take whatever chunky riff Andrew Markuszewski and Ken Sorceron are tinkering with and combine the two into this world of sludge-ridden pain, while (the, sadly, recently deceased) Bill Bumgardner keeps the whole fucked-up monstrosity moving forward. Take the opener, “Body Choke”, where the band, after an epic introduction and an especially black opening series of riffs, builds up with this strange, serpentine, shifting beat. It keeps you going and wanting more, even though, when you break it down, it’s a pretty simple beat and riff .The guitar lick that dances on top of it propels you forward, as do Fell’s vocals when they finally come in around the two-minute mark. (And, seriously, dude—those vocals are like nails on a chalkboard in the best way possible.)
If you left Death Mask with this level of songwriting, though, you’d have an album full of great introductions (and maybe a catchy lick here and there), but ultimately it’d be a listless piece of music, going nowhere in its forty-seven minute runtime. It’s in this part that makes this album particularly shine—Lord Mantis seem to know exactly when someone’s attention begins to waver, and they subsequently bring something new to the table. While it’s not a random, Naked City– or Mr. Bungle-esque shift of tone, making you guess on their next move like some sludgy game of Battleship, Death Mask isn’t exactly by-the-numbers in this regard, either—tracks have the ability to go into interesting places while ultimately not leaving the world that the band has created with the album. A track like “Negative Birth” starts with a riff that, if repeated enough, could probably get a bit annoying after a while, but it’s instead augmented with Fell’s vocals and some light higher register guitar work before finally speeding up into this hellish pit of black metal shrieks and blast beats. It twists your expectations into a pretzel knot, salts them, and fucking eats them before flashing you a razor-sharp grin.
To add a nice universality to everything as well, the production does more good than bad on Death Mask. Production in metal can be touchy at best; it’s easy to go overboard with what’s available to you in the studio and end up with a sterile-sounding piece of music, or just half-ass everything and find the end result to be muddied and masking some interesting instrumental moments. Lord Mantis—with the help of Correction House’s Sanford Parker—find a nice balance between things, with sludgy guitars that have the slightest ragged edge on them and drums hitting just right—not too drenched in reverb, not too stripped of high moments, but just dulled enough to make the guitars and vocals more of a central part of each track.. Fell’s vocals are put under (if I’m listening correctly) a light veneer of reverb that fans out his shrieks into a sort of slithering snakeskin on top of the rest of the instrumentation.
Ultimately, Death Mask works by taking the best of each genre—the fierce edginess of black metal and the general, simple (but monumentally epic) riffage of sludge—and, stitching them together with minor industrial influences, disgusting lyrics, and some of the best songwriting in the metal game, to make something amazingly dark and bestial. And, at the end of the day, the Lord Mantis proves that you don’t necessarily need experimental bells and whistles to make great music—just an original vision or interpretation of something pre-existing. None of these parts, when separated, are anything new to the metal world, but, when combined with stellar songwriting, become an intense aural chimera that doesn’t so much entice its listeners than drags them by the ear to the pit of their doom.