For all its historic and contemporary emphasis on gore, violence, and the southern hemisphere of the otherworldly, it’s a bit surprising how unscary modern death metal is. Perhaps it’s my own desensitization to the music that I’ve explored in depth for the past several years, but it seems like there are fewer and fewer death metal records that take me out of my element by presenting genuinely unnerving material. Spain’s Altarage, with their doomy, perpetually murk-ridden death metal style, have proven a notable exception to the above. Rather than focusing primarily on the thematic elements that have been a staple of death metal for decades, the band instead opt for a unique sonic intimidation that is easily recognizable as distinctly their own. Their debut album, Nihl, felt like the wailing of an ancient demon, fallen deep into a nightmarish cave, perpetually seeking to snuff out the souls of men. It was epic in scope, chaotic in composition, and mercilessly overwhelming in its production. Their follow-up Endinghent was no less intimidating, though perhaps a tad more clear in its overall sonic aesthetic. The band’s third full-length record, The Approaching Roar, sounds exactly as its title suggests, and builds on the elements that have made Altarage’s music a distinct entity in the world of death metal. Drowning in an overwhelming atmosphere that’s as all-consuming as it is relentless, The Approaching Roar is an anxiety-inducing nightmare that you may never want to leave.
The most distinct aspect of Altarage’s music is the production, which is at times so utterly suffocating that it’s difficult to discern what is happening on a performance level. Opener “Sighting”, after a haunting acoustic intro, exemplifies this production style perfectly, as the guitars and drums swarm and swirl with such chaotic aggression that they seem to be a symbiotic whole rather than distinct, individual components of the track. The vocals, subsumed by the utter instrumental madness on display, sound like the bellows of a man caught in the middle of a hurricane, and are almost completely indecipherable amidst the maelstrom. While all of this may sound completely unappealing on a songwriting level (and to some it may be), the mad genius of Altarage is their ability to draw clear, resonant musical themes through this mass of sound and deliver riffs that are both memorable and compelling upon repeat listens. Far from a tangled mess of incoherent noise, “Sighting” is both a flabbergasting opening salvo and concrete mission statement. Stick with this music long enough, and its riches become both easily discernible and completely worthy of the effort it takes to crack their foreboding surface.
For all their chaotic death metal leanings, Altarage are thankfully far from a one-trick pony. More so than on either of their previous recordings, the band’s penchant for doomy and spacey, atmospheric composition stands front-and-center. “Urn” is a slow, brooding bruiser of a track that highlights the band’s ability to create music that is eerie and effective at any tempo. “Cyclopean Clash” builds on this theme by mixing the band’s fastest and slowest tempos together in a veritable typhoon of death-doom that is as good as you would hear on a dISEMBOWELMENT or Inverloch record, capturing the essence of both death and doom styles in a way that feels both historically viable and distinctly Altarage. But the band are at their absolute best on The Approaching Roar when diving headlong into the frantic and creepy. “Inhabitant”, “Chaworos Sephelln”, and “Engineer” capture this spirit better than perhaps any tracks the band have yet written, and finish off the album in a sea of fuzzy, frenetic violence and terror that rivals in intensity and execution the music of any band writing this brand of death metal today.
With their third record, Altarage have both grown and stayed the same. While their music remains as recognizable as ever, their incorporation of more obviously doom and atmo-heavy elements adds a significant amount of heft and eccentricity to the proceedings. But the further incorporation of these elements does little to dispel the band’s wildly aggressive and thoroughly chaotic songwriting and performances, which are the bread and butter of who Altarage are as a band. There’s little here that disappoints, and a whole lot of material that is worthy of a multitude of listens. The Approaching Roar is a genuinely frightening and arresting album that I will be returning to for years to come, and is without question a worthy installment into the band’s already stellar discography.
The Approaching Roar is out January 25th via Season of Mist, and is available for pre-order on the band’s Bandcamp page.