I’m a sucker for the kind of discordant, dissonant, technically adventurous death metal that leaves you simultaneously baffled and awed. Think Portal and their utterly unhinged songwriting, Ulcerate and their fire and blood approach to technical death metal, and Mitochondrion’s relentless, blisteringly paced barrage of audio brutality. It’s a sound rivaled by few others in the metal world in regards to complexity, manic aggression, and general inaccessibility. It’s all jarring melodic angles and elbows, coupled with a bone-crushing intensity that culminates in some of the wildest and weirdest music on the planet. Thankfully, its reputation and influence only continues to grow as metal marches onward into our bleakest of futures. Plenty of bands have risen to join the subgenre’s titans over the past several years, leaving their mark with blunt force. Altarage, Hissing, Malthusian, Convulsing, Mylingar, and dozens of others have all released outstanding records over the past two years, but it’s been a bit since we’ve heard from one of the subgenre’s most elusive and consistently excellent acts: Abyssal. Back in 2015, the UK juggernauts dropped their third full-length entitled Antikatastaseis, which has slowly crept its way onto my all-time favorite death metal albums list. When I heard that they would be releasing their fourth record A Beacon in the Husk this month, it would be safe to say that my expectations were extraordinarily, perhaps even dangerously high. Which makes the fact that A Beacon in the Husk is one of the absolute best death metal albums of 2019 all the more remarkable.
While there’s certainly a definitive sonic ethos that Abyssal ascribe to in regards to their songwriting and performance structure, pigeonholing A Beacon in the Husk strictly into the style of the above bands doesn’t fully do this album justice. Sure, the guitar work is by design chaotic and disjointed, the production is a swirling cornucopia of barely controlled audio nightmares, and the vocal performance plums the depths of metal’s most guttural, haunted utterances with gusto, but there are a few key differentiators that help this record stand out from its contemporaries. One of the most notable of these aspects is the band’s incorporation of doom metal elements into its songwriting throughout. While the guitars in Abyssal’s previous material have almost invariably raced and bludgeoned with sharp, angular ferocity, there are several moments on A Beacon in the Husk that offer respite from that interminable onslaught. In the first of the album’s three separate phases, the band takes a significant step back from the manic aggression of the album’s opening track, “Dialogue”, to create a spacy yet ominous and oppressively violent sound that’s stuffed with low-and-slow performance. Both tracks in the “Reflection” section of the album focus on highly atmospheric doom and drone elements that create a musical world which feels far more measured and mature than we’re used to in this style of music. It’s not often that death metal this dissonant and intense latches onto the steady tones of a Hooded Menace or Inverloch, but here Abyssal pull it off with plenty of energy to spare. Which they utilize to the fullest extent through the remainder of the record.
“Discernment: The Cloister Beneath the Grime” is peak Abyssal, barrelling through passage after passage of absolutely insane guitar work with a level of competency and precision that few bands in modern metal could emulate. It’s one of the most barbarous tracks on the album, and a shining example of the band’s incredible skill as performers. But the track comprising the middle portion of this section of the record, “Discernment: Khyphotic Suzerains”, is where the band’s creativity in their songwriting shines brightest. While the track steams through its first few moments with all the subtlety of a runaway freight train, its latter half unfurls a level of melodic focus that quickly becomes one of the stand-out moments of the band’s discography as a whole. Soaring, tremolo-picked lines emerge from the general maelstrom to elevate this track to the heights of dramatic, triumphant emotional resonance typically reserved for bands like Agalloch or Insomnium without ever losing its sense of propulsive chaos. It’s moments like these that elevate A Beacon in the Husk beyond the trappings of simple genre classification and into that rarified air of a sound a band can call their own.
But it’s not all fog and misdirection here. Subsequent track “Discernment: The Triumph of Fools” takes the band beyond the realm of human music into straight cosmic-terror Portal-core, with a finale that seethes and roils with a hellish glee that’s as straightforward as the band gets. It’s a perfect cap to the album’s second and most diverse section of music. Which isn’t to say the album’s final three selections are in any way inferior. The “Descent” tracks are the darkest and most complex of the record, living up to their theme by creating a sonic hellscape where melody is long forgotten and instead exchanged with a sense of sheer horror as the band dive deep into the darkest pages of their playbook. Finale “Soliloquy” provides a brief and fitting denouement as we’re carried off beyond this mortal plane by the sounds of fuzzed-out feedback, gentle synths, and haunting yet not uninviting voices. It’s a transcendent send-off to an album marked deeply by abrasive audio violence.
When looking at the whole of death metal’s output in 2019, I’m at a loss trying to find a better example of what makes this genre great than A Beacon in the Husk. It’s technically astute, emotionally resonant, prodigiously dark, diverse as all hell, thematically interesting from its opening moments, and never once dips in quality throughout its near hour-long runtime. Each aspect of the album’s composition is accomplished with expert precision, leaving listeners with a complete package that is both immediately engaging and demands repeat listens. Several spins deep, I’m still discovering new pieces of the puzzle, which is something only the best albums in this genre are able to accomplish. A Beacon in the Husk most certainly belongs in that esteemed category, and is far and away one of my favorite releases of 2019 thus far.
A Beacon in the Husk is out now via Profound Lore Records, and is available for purchase on the band’s Bandcamp page.