What’s worse than the deja vu horror of reliving the same tired mistakes time and time again with no end in sight? No, I’m not talking about listening to your umpteenth atmospheric post-black metal album of the year, I’m talking about that Bill Murray in Groundhog Day or kind of shit. The inconsequential decision-making, the futile attempts at change, and the existential misery that come with a cyclical loop of time. Or worse, the meaninglessness of an unchanging world or the regressive reset that swiftly defies any kind of progress like a real-life game over. It’s hard to imagine what could be worse (aside from going into Groundhog Day expecting a delightful Bill Murray comedy and not some sunny-side up twist on an anxiety-inducing nightmare). I feel like Venom Prison could agree. Their sophomore LP, Samsara, tackles the repetitive cycles of death and rebirth with less heavy-handedness – and definitely without the comedic spin. Instead, the record exudes a frustration that takes aim at larger societal regressions in a world equipped for progress. It’s bluntly political and wholly uncompromising, becoming a wrench in the wheel sort of break in the cycle that we desperately need.
Not only do Venom Prison take this on conceptually, but they’ve evolved themselves since 2016’s Animus. Their eye for hardcore hasn’t given up its gaze, but the scales have been tipped in a way that makes more tasteful use of the -core aspect of their sound. A one-over of the record (or even just dizzying closer “Nakara”) should be all you need to know where they stand now. It’s a net positive as the metalcore and deathcore breakdowns are scattered throughout like gristle, offering up gnarly little bits to break things up without killing the momentum. So often it seems that there’s a tendency for these segments to coagulate or even lose potency as gears shift from well-oiled, nearly tech death passages to good old fashioned, spit-in-your-eye punk rock – but such is never the case here. Instead, these stylistic acrobatics become efficient (and impressive) uses of their sonic arsenal, highlighting their physicality as well as their snakelike ability to course through orthopedic trials of Carcass-inspired melodeath (“Asura’s Realm”), tireless chases of Cannibal Corpse-style riffing (“Megillus & Leaena”), or breakaway Slayer divebombs and lead work (“Self Inflicted Violence”). Some limit-pushing gymnastics in the vein of Strapping Young Lad at their most relentless and absurd even sneak in along the way. Additionally, Samsara displays a complete mastery of the dexterous deathgrind blueprint laid by acts like The Red Chord and Cattle Decapitation that lends an appropriately confrontational air to the record. Though many of these elements were present on Animus, they’ve honed their edge to a surgical micrometer where passages slash and slice with a painless ease as opposed to the groovier, looser debut.
The songwriting here is extremely tight and dense, it’s apparent that producers Tom Dring and Arthur Rizk have the group in tip-top form. There’s rarely a hiccup or wasted breath on Samsara, and it’s a huge part of why every track feels like a standout in its own right. The consistently-impressive lead work is regularly elevated by a fucking hungry, hyperactive rhythm section that refuses to be left while the guitars rip away. Grooves like those found in “Self Inflicted Violence” are expertly paced, trickled out responsibly and tweaked to perfection (as well as sequenced) in a way where you’re never fatigued, or even left to be comfortable for that matter – they simply rifle through everything with an incredible efficiency, and it’s some never to the detriment of wanting to hear a little more of anything because you know damn well you’ll try to catch it on the next spin. The details right down to the palate-cleaning interlude “Deva’s Enemy” – which segues perfectly into “Asura’s Realm” – are on point, and a motion toward atmosphere building and melody is coaxed out across the latter half of the album. Larissa Stupar’s roars have a patina that lends a layer of vitriol from the top of her blackened shrieks to the depths of her gutterals at no sacrifice to the comprehension of her lyrical barbs. Her arrangements are nicely assorted as she complements the demands of the instrumentation with an emotive performance, and she even manages to work in a few hooks along the way (check “Megillus & Leaena” or “Dukkha”), no small feat on something that moves at this pace and persistence. It all makes for a dense listen that encourages to be picked apart upon repeat listens.
What’s more is that Samsara is conceptually rich as it’s sonically wide-ranging. I can think of no other album this year that goes toe-to-toe with the multitudinous headfuckery of woes that the world seems to barf up on a daily basis. Tackling themes of misogyny, gender identity, xenophobia, and more generally, the kind of shit we should be reading about in history books as opposed to experiencing firsthand, Samsara becomes a progressive representation of the utter contempt and disgust for the status quo and the change needed to shake things up as we’re perpetually born into the same failures under an anesthetic of societal progress. It parallels the Buddhist cyclical nature of suffering, death and rebirth every time you press play, but conveys a spark of resilience and inspiration instead of paralysis, hopelessness, and despair. It’s a prime example of what to find at the top of the heap of modern death metal. It doesn’t seek to reinvent perceptions of thel at large, but it’s comprehensive approach is just rarely matched. Where Animus left me excited about their potential and eager for their next release, Samsara gives me no such feelings. No, this will be savored for a long, long time.
Samsara is available March 15 via Prosthetic Records.