Cracking the code to a successful debut is no cakewalk. Few are those who can define themselves well enough or crystallize their sound over the course of a few demos or EPs that their LP can stand out from the crowd in a sea of half-baked, messy introductions. To be honest, debuts usually get the benefit of the doubt simply because there’s little in the way of preconceptions or expectations. Flaws can become quirks, weaknesses become opportunities, and mediocrity is simply more forgivable (plus, no sane person with meat between their ears would hold every debut album to the standards of a Black Sabbath, Kill ‘Em All, Scream Bloody Gore, In the Nightside Eclipse, or Calculating Infinity). But that wasn’t ever my experience with the debut long player (aptly titled Emergence) from Philly’s Basilysk. This group feels well-developed and sound like seasoned professionals. All of this is to say that they’ve already found a way to effectively communicate their identity without being a parody or some hackneyed version of something that already exists. This is the kind of rock solid bands strive to achieve.
A big part of why Emergence “just clicks” is its familiar approach, sans uninspired or pandering derivation. Throughout, the group pays tasteful respect to the jet-fueled death metal of legends like Vader or Morbid Angel, peppering eardrums with blast beats, nauseating changes of direction between heavyweight rhythmic haymakers and unabashed whiplashing speed, and leads that spew forth like geysers and flow as unpredictably as they arrived. In short, Basilysk’s technicality and songwriting chops are on point; even building out a little room to squeeze in some nods to more prog-leaning figureheads like Death and Sadus. Though this can sometimes make the tracks a little beefy in size (most about six minutes), they move briskly and fluidly with an ease that belies their length. Outside of the mood-setting opener, early tracks like “Molestor of Dreams” and “Sinners of Their Own Reality” are grin-inducing death metal rippers with a negligible amount of fat on ‘em; it’s just conventionally great shit that puts a check in every box. It makes for an almost readymade start that leaves the remainder of the album to take some chances, and that they do. Like fellow Philly death metallers Horrendous, there’s an obvious affinity for the progressive.
It’s not until “Sad State of the Arts” does their thrashier side take prominence. It’s a welcome and fun change of pace that steers clear of Blatz-soaked retro thrash or the more polished approach of acts like Evile or Havok. Likewise, “Fire (In The Temple Of Sacrifice)” spreads its wings with an even keener eye to melody with an onslaught of solos that’s likely inspired by the heyday of Mustaine and Friedman (though things do become a little bloated in its waning minutes). Still, the tribute Basilysk pays over the course of Emergence doesn’t really tell their whole story. The attention to detail throughout is impressive. Production-wise, there’s a necessary grain to their sound that plays well with both the death metal facets and their thrashy invocations. From the opening choir of cicadas and insectoid guitar work that parallels the album cover to the perfectly-timed breather of “Eyes” (whose classical flair was all but requisite in the 80s), the production and sequencing keep things interesting. The real surprise on Emergence, though, is the gargantuan, nearly 15-minute long epic “Prebirth – Karma – Afterlife” that brings their progressive tendencies to fruition. Where their It’s an impressive feat loaded with rad solos, but some editing would have given it some tightening up to put it on par with the leaner, meaner tracks from earlier on. When taken in with the rest of the album it doesn’t feel as overbearing, but upon individual inspection, it’s quite cumbersome. Comparatively, introspective closer “Clouds” tackles the proggier death thing much more economically with a refreshingly atmospheric bend.
So, it should go without saying that these dudes can play. Drummer Michael Lee Churry hammers away with a steady helpings of void-filling blasts and double kicks (a part of a balanced diet and extremely helpful for the number of peel-off solos that pop up). Jimmy Viola’s bass is a deft tone-setter (also wonderfully audible), fortifying mid-tempo prowls and stepping out where need be with some punchy attacks and gnarly little runs without getting all fucking Geddy Lee on us. The guitar work of Josh Perrin and Luke Gary is expertly diverse, with loads of stellar riffing and memorable solos. Further, Perrin’s screams carve away with a sandblasting rasp that works nicely through all facets of the Basilysk sound. Raw gutterals never seem to carry the attitude that an intelligible medium rare scream or blackened shriek can. (Perrin works as a meaty medium-well on this Burger-fied Metal Vocals™ scale.) They have a ideal toolkit for what they try to do, and pretty much everything they do speaks to this.
There isn’t much to fault on Emergence. It’s basically everything you could ask for in a great death metal record. The songwriting is varied and intriguing, the performances are technically impressive, as a whole it is aesthetically and conceptually sound, and for the most part, they have every i dotted and t crossed. There aren’t any huge risks being taken, but the ones they take are regularly rewarding. There are a handful of moments across the record that could use a little polish, but they do little to mar the album as a whole and instead feel like minor inconveniences. The (sort of) divided-by-genre nature of the record successfully showcases their skill across the prog-death-thrash spectrum and makes me super-duper curious to hear how they will manipulate these setpieces in the future. In short, it’s a complete, motley, and well-sequenced record that hints at an interesting future as much as it is immediately enjoyable. This is a textbook great debut that shapes up to be one of the young year’s finest debuts, and something you might see pop up around list season from thrashers and DM heads alike.
Mark those calendars, kiddos, Emergence is available February 22.