Portal, Mitochondrion, Antediluvian, Grave Miasma, Adversarial, The Ominous Circle, and Impetuous Ritual. The mere mention of these bands automatically conjures thoughts of a particular sound, a sonic aesthetic, within the death metal community. Jagged riffs, overwhelmingly heavy and murky production values, vocals that leap slowly and maniacally from the deepest pits of hell itself. Though this strain of death metal isn’t without its detractors and controversial elements, these above bands and a host of others have constructed successful careers upon the foundation laid by Finnish gods Demilich, and in my mind death metal is all the better for it. Spain’s Altarage also belongs in this group, cementing their reputation among the most punishing of death dealers with their monumental debut release Nihl. It was as relentless, pounding, and utterly suffocating as anything yet released in the band’s chosen subgenre, and ended up being one of my favorite releases of last year. With Endinghent, the band’s much-anticipated sophomore record, Altarage continue to expand upon the sound that brought them such positive attention, but with a twist: Endinghent is without question an evolutionary leap for the band in both song-craft and sound that serves as a sonic departure from their previous work. Whether these changes are good or bad depends on your view of what makes Altarage special, and in my book the band have begun a gallant voyage into a more refined and sharp sound that not only serves to highlight their songwriting ability, but also flesh out elements of their sound that were somewhat drowned out in their last album. It’s a bold move that pays dividends with repeated listening.
While there are notable differences between the band’s first two records, there are also some interesting similarities. Both albums are nearly identical in length, and each contains eight tracks. But those are about the only aspect so these records that feel carbon copied. The first noticeable (and perhaps the most prominent) change within the band’s sound in Endinghent is the production. While this may seem a minor adjustment on the surface, those who are familiar with the band’s debut should quickly be able to spot this change. While the band in no way skimps on the fundamentally crushing riffs that made Nihl such a delight, the drums thunder and bludgeon with shocking clarity, riding high in the mix with a potent assault of doomy drudging and death metal blasting. Opening track “Incessant Magma” lives up to its name with a molasses-like sound that churns and pulls itself forward into a devastating conclusion, and highlights throughout the band’s more nuanced approach to production. This change is even more evident in follow-up track “Spearheaderon”, which in all of its manic death metal riffing still finds small pockets of space and breathing room that were not featured in the band’s debut. The bass also makes an impressive and prominent appearance about halfway through the track, allowing other members of the band to share in the spotlight. Two tracks in, Altarage’s adjustments to their approach are clearly evident.
This update on the band’s sound isn’t without its potential cons. The wave of impenetrable sound that listeners drowned themselves in while listening to Nihl now has holes of daylight peeking through, allowing for more spacious sound structures than before. While I don’t think that this change is a deal-breaker for those who gravitate toward the more overwhelming sonic structures of this type of death metal, this change in sound does have an impact on the album’s general sense of murkiness. After repeated listens, I find these changes to be a mostly positive thing, particularly because they allow the band’s songwriting prowess to shine through clearer than ever before. The sinister guitar tone and riff-building of “Cataclysmic Triada”, the jagged and disconcerting guitar fever dream of “Rift”, the blackened fury of “Orb Terrax”, and the doom-laden elements of “Weighteer” and finale “Barrier” are all clearly heard and given prominent display without being drowned out by overwhelming production values, which instead serve to highlight the diversity and scale of the bands technical and songwriting abilities. These feel like fully-realized songs that have merit individually, rather than a mix of sounds potentially falling into an audio black hole.
Speaking of which, you’ll be hard pressed to find more evil guitar tone this side of Hades. The barrage of the axe section is absolutely relentless, even with the band’s newfound appreciation of sonic headroom, and serves as one of the most impressive features of the album. The instrumentation on this record sounds no less ferocious than anything else in the band’s catalog, and can sit confidently with the likes of Portal and Impetuous Ritual in magnitude and ability to devastate. The performances on this record are uniformly solid, showcasing the talent this band contains. It’s a display of skill and aesthetic that turns out quite well in nearly every way, with the band exploring new territory without losing their signature aggression.
Overall, Endinghent serves as a musical and aesthetic evolution for the band that could in many ways have gone wrong. Instead, listeners will find a great deal to relish here. The brutish drums, sharp guitars, and hellish vocals are all still present and very much alive, while the overall sound has been cleared of excess noise to allow the individual performances to shine, as well as the band’s potent songwriting ability. This is Altarage refined, working on a level that feels both natural and necessary. Balancing this level of aggression and nuance is a difficult task for even the most veteran of bands, but with their sophomore record Altarage have pulled off the monumental task of allowing their sound to evolve without losing its fundamental sense of wickedness. A notable and highly enjoyable entry into a fundamentally bananas year for quality death metal.
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Endinghent was released on October 13th and is available on major streaming services, as well as for purchase on the band’s Bandcamp page.