There are few literary universes that have been plundered as deeply by metal bands as that of H.P. Lovecraft’s Cthulhu Mythos. While there are many other fictional worlds that have received their fair share of attention within the genre (Tolkien’s Middle-Earth being the most obvious and popular example), few if any of them seem as tailor-made for metal translation as Lovecraft’s terrifying works. Bands as diverse as Metallica, Cradle of Filth, Black Sabbath, and Iced Earth have dedicated tracks to this universe and its most infamous cosmic creature of the deep, while bands like R’lyeh and The Great Old Ones focus their music almost exclusively on Lovecraft’s diverse body of work. Sulphur Aeon belong with the bands in that latter camp, and stand as debatably the single best musical entity drawing inspiration from the Cthulhu Mythos. I can think of few bands that marry their music and concept so seamlessly together, as Sulphur Aeon’s first two records represent some of the best death metal in the business over the past few years. Their third full-length record, The Scythe of Cosmic Chaos, continues their conceptual obsession, but brings with it a fundamental dearth of diminishing returns. This is premium, nearly flawless death metal, building on every positive attribute of their previous work to create something titanic and utterly sinister. It’s one of the best metal adaptations of its source material, and also happens to be one of the single best death metal releases of 2018. Just when you thought the year couldn’t get any better in regards to fantastic death metal, Sulphur Aeon appears to absolutely ruin your year-end lists.
For those unfamiliar with the band’s previous work, Sulphur Aeon peddle a form of blackened, melodic death metal that emphasizes an equal commitment to melodic songwriting and brazenly aggressive musicianship. Think Hypocrisy mixed with the atmosphere of Dark Tranquility and subsequently beaten to death by the sonic typhoon of Taphos and you’ll come close to capturing their unique and punishing sound. Replete with bone-crushing riffs and a striking melodic undercurrent, the band’s Lovecraft-worshipping hymns to chaos and destruction have consistently been some of the very best death metal has to offer. The band’s previous outing, 2015’s Gateway to the Antisphere, was one of that year’s finest releases, and I don’t envy the band having to follow it up. Thankfully, The Scythe of Cosmic Chaos is every bit as good as its predecessor, if not better.
“Cult of Starry Wisdom” kicks off the album with a shroud of atmosphere befitting a cultist’s reveries. Wails and whispers are undergirded by a foreboding hum until the drums and guitar work kick in with militant abandon. The first vocal work we hear is more worthy of liturgy than a death metal album, as clean and clear voices darkly serenade us to our imminent doom. M.’s vocal work on this record is varied and diverse in its presentation but never anything less than powerful and potent. Once his distinct growl stirs awake the overwhelming nature of the band’s music takes full flight, and his overall performance throughout is one of the highlights of this record. That’s not to say the instrumental performances contained here are lacking, either. “Yuggothian Spell” highlights drummer D.’s massive chops with some of the most utterly thunderous drum performance and production I’ve heard this year. Every double-bass blast feels like a war of lightning and thunder raging right above your head. Since we’re already running with the nature metaphors, if the drumming here is the sky, T. and A.’s guitar work is a raging sea, crashing wave after wave of melodic and brutal riffage into our powerless ears. “The Summoning of Nyarlathotep” is one of the best examples on the record of the above elements coming fully to bear, and includes what might be my death metal riff of the year about three-and-a-half minutes in. It’s an instrumental smorgasbord that lacks nothing in the sheer brutality department.
But as bruising as the album’s first half can be, it’s latter section brings the goods in ways both unexpected and entirely welcome. “The Oneironaut / Haunting Visions Within the Starlit Chambers of Seven Gates”, outside of its absurdly long title, marries a formidable riff-heavy punch with some of the most soaring, progressive melodies on the entire record, drifting off into a sonic starry night as ominous as it is beautiful. Gargantuan finale “Thou Shalt Not Speak His Name – The Scythe of Cosmic Chaos” takes the albums brutal and melodic natures and fuses them with chants and spoken word sections that bring the entire operation back to it’s main theme: Cthulhu-worship. It’s as gripping a final track as you’ll hear on a concept album, capping off the album’s more experimental half with fitting intensity.
Outside of the band’s best songwriting to date, another obvious element that helps tie this record together so beautifully is its production aesthetic. No particular instrument overpowers the others as the record progresses, though there are moments when the band’s songwriting emphasis favors particular production choices, like the vocal effects on “Yuggothian Spell” or the warbly, aquatic guitar effects on “The Oneironaut”, both of which are creepy and aquatic as all hell. These kinds flourishes may seem small, but in the context of the album they work wonders in setting mood and tone, further demonstrating the band’s clear devotion to their concept and their ability to remain creative in executing it. Every element Sulphur Aeon incorporate into this record works, and it’s truly a wonder to witness.
Is The Scythe of Cosmic Chaos Sulphur Aeon’s best record? The longer I sit with it, the more I’m inclined to answer this question with an emphatic yes. Concept albums are a dime-a-dozen in metal, especially when those concepts center around incredibly popular and well-known literary mythologies. But rare is the band who can harness a concept across multiple records without ever feeling stale, contrived, repetitious or ridiculous. To the contrary, Sulphur Aeon only feel more focused, more menacing, with each new release. One can clearly hear the thought and care that went into every note of this record, and that attention to detail creates a musical experience that is technically sound without ever losing its evil, violent edge. This is a concept album for the ages, and the most impressive feat of the band’s career. My only disappointment is that I may have to wait a while for Sulphur Aeon’s next stellar release. Until then, you can find me listening to The Scythe of Cosmic Chaos, staring intently into the starless night and contemplating the abject terror of existence.