“Good artists borrow; great artists steal.”– Pablo Picasso, maybe
This axiom drives metal. It only becomes more true as time’s inevitable march covers more and more ground and an increasing number of sounds are necessarily retread. I’ve written on this before in other reviews, but this holds especially true for extreme metal subgenres. So profoundly important are the ur-texts of death metal that differentiating oneself becomes more about finding niches within niches and increasingly minuscule alterations to forms, simply because everything has just already been done before in some way or another. It’s not about inventing something totally new: it’s about finding what makes your voice unique when you’re only able to access the same language as everyone else.
Enter Nucleus. Like many of the rising young lions of death metal, this Chicago quartet is not a band that is particularly averse to wearing their influences on their sleeve: not even in a full minute into the opening track on Entity, their second LP, and the shoulders on which the group find themselves standing are in plain sight. As one might expect from a science-fiction-themed death metal band, we can trace their lineage primarily back to a handful of bands in America and Finland, to a group of bands that defined death metal’s alien and otherworldly side in the late 80’s/early 90’s while the rest of the bands were cavorting in blood and muck (not that there’s anything wrong with that, of course).
In looking at the defining texts of its specific and gleefully weird aesthetic, we can see exactly what makes Entity tick as an album: the otherworldly atmosphere and tonal choices of Demilich and Timeghoul – the lords of the underground – meet the progressive tendencies of Nocturnus and the warped, labyrinthine riffs of early Morbid Angel. Entity bears hallmarks of each, and, in doing so, transcends mere comparison and develops a personality entirely its own, a sort of best-possible Frankenstein of qualities.
Leading single and title track “Entity” bears it all: a searing tremolo-picked opener gives way to an off-kilter atonal solo – then a much more traditional one after a short refrain – before the whole things comes to a head with a juddering, lurching riff that provides an excellent breather from the caustic strangeness thus far. (Other bands take note: this is a way in which many more could benefit in taking a page from the Finnish scene’s book.) Before long, though, it’s back to murkier waters as melodies pile on top of each other in quick succession, a writhing mass of sounds that coil around each other and form an inscrutable tangle of music. And just like that, the magic is wrought: Nucleus have woven their spell and pulled listeners into their alien domain. Something amazing happens when the shifting, amorphous melodies of Altars of Madness meets The Key’s high-minded progressivism in song structure, and as the two spiral rigorously like caducean snakes around the all but too-recognizable melodic choices of Nespithe and both Timeghoul demos. Entity isn’t just any one of these, but it isn’t just all of them either: from this mixture something distinct emerges.
What really makes Entity tick is the interrelation in the guitar work between Dave Muntean and Dan Ozcanli: the duo are always using their instrumentation to complement the other’s choices. Although the reliance on counterpoint melodies and atonality can make songs blur together or seem a bit monotonous towards the record’s end, it’s a powerful connective tissue that serves to both elevate Nucleus’ songwriting and provide them the room to explore tendencies in this weird sphere of death metal that other bands sometimes miss out on because of their commitment to a more standard dynamic between guitars. Although it’s common in other forms of metal, this sort of play off one another rarely happens in this sub-scene of death metal; it’s something I’d love to see more bands go out on a limb and experiment with.
At the end of the day, Nucleus clearly aren’t trying to reinvent the wheel with Entity, and for good reason: they’ve struck upon a winning combination of elements cribbed from other bands and have let the close proximity of these characteristics cultivate into a sound that has plenty of its own personality and spice to stand separate from the pack. Entity may have spent its gestation period under the shadows of monoliths, but by the time it’s ready to come into the light, it’s something entirely its own – and an excellent album to boot.
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Entity comes out June 10th through Unspeakable Axe records. You can preorder it now through the bandcamp page embedded above. If you live in Chicago, they’re also playing an album relese show this Friday, June 7th.