It’s been a good while since death metal has seen a significant pull toward mainstream recognition. The genre’s heyday is rife with stories of monetary success and cultural recognition (just look up the histories of Cannibal Corpse, Deicide, and Morbid Angel for vindication), but more recent iterations of death metal have for the most part remained staunchly underground. I would make the claim that most death metal diehards don’t consider this a bad thing, and being one of them I tend to fall in that “who cares?” camp. But the last several years have brought the genre back to a level of public recognition that it hasn’t experienced in nearly two decades. Releases from Tomb Mold, Horrendous, and Portal have received a hefty dose of Pitchfork love, while labels like 20 Buck Spin continue to churn out death metal records from bands riding high on the continual indie darling circuit (think Superstition, Witch Vomit, Ossuarium, etc.). When it comes to public critical and social acknowledgment, death metal is riding higher than it has in years, utilizing the genre’s classic sounds to appeal to wider audiences with a renewed vigor. Which is where Arizona’s Gatecreeper comes in.
The beneficiaries of popular critical attention for their hard-hitting debut Sonoran Depravation, Gatecreeper jumped into the scene’s upper echelons with both feet almost immediately. Blending modern and Swedish/old school death metal elements in a manner that sounds like the hideous lovechild of Entombed/Bolt Thrower and Trap Them, it’s no wonder the band have taken off so quickly. Bands like Mammoth Grinder and Black Breath have been beating down the walls between these types of sounds for years now with some success, and Gatecreeper seems poised to take this approach to the genre to the next level. These sounds are tailor-made for crossover appeal, and the band have dived into this aesthetic with gusto. Gatecreeper are riding a wave of good will and relative popularity into their highly anticipated second album, Deserted. Does it hold up to the high standards set by its predecessor? The answer to that question is a resounding all that and then some.
Straight out of the gate, Deserted is a bruiser. Kurt Ballou’s razor sharp mix is immediately noticeable, as the album’s opening and title track lays down a foundation of intense riffing, rapacious guitar tones, and thoroughly crushing percussion without ever feeling overtly chaotic or indecipherable. The band know how to write a solid riff, and they beat more than one into our eager skulls with measured force throughout Deserted’s opening moments. One important element of this track (and a theme throughout the remainder of the record) is its pace. Rather than coming out swinging with the manic speed of many of their contemporaries, Gatecreeper slow things down a bit in the tempo department. This more moderated approach is utilized heavily here, allowing each riff to pulverize listeners at a borderline molasses-like crawl that is insanely effective and thoroughly brutalizing. Hooded Menace-isms look good on Gatecreeer, and Deserted is chock full of moments that allow the band’s maturing songwriting to take its sweet, precious time beating us senseless.
The band kicks into a more familiar gear for genre lovers with “Puncture Wounds”, which kicks into high gear immediately and features some of Eric Wagner and Nate Garrett’s most straightforward and menacing riffage to date. Single “From the Ashes” splits the difference in the speed department, delivering a veritable chug-fest that allows Matt Arrebollo’s hardcore-infused drum work to take center stage in all its patient, spacious, hard-hitting glory. “Ruthless” is an absolutely savage beast of prey, hunting down any parts of your brain that have yet to be pulverized fully intent on finishing the job. Four tracks in, and Gatecreeper have dispelled any doubt that they’ve lost their foundationally menacing edge.
While all of the above should sound fairly righteous to fans of this style, bands like Gatecreeper run into the issue of sonic homogeneity as a by-product of their chosen style. While I can’t say that the band completely avoid the pratfalls of sameness (there are a few moments here that feel somewhat less than essential), they do a wonderful job in general of creating enough variety in their songwriting to keep most any metal fan engaged throughout. Aside from the modulated tempo changes, Gatecreeper do a great job of expanding a fairly insular sound into something more expansive in scope. “Everlasting” in particular widens the scope of the album’s songwriting palette considerably, and ends up being one of the band’s most accomplished tracks to date. Closer “Absence of Light” features some of the band’s most doom-laden and soaring guitar work yet, rivaling the likes of Khemmis in its grandiosity and emotional heft. Moments like these indicate a more exploratory and mature songwriting aesthetic for the band, and keep Deserted from falling too deeply into the sameness trap.
Overall, Deserted is a marked step up for the band in nearly every regard. The production and mix allow these songs to breathe despite the style’s own suffocating restrictions, the performances are solid throughout, and the songwriting displays more than enough nuance and range to justify the hype. Gatecreeper avoid the sophomore slump by doing what they do best while adding enough flourishes to keep their distinctive saw-mill sound from growing stale. It’s an excellent album written and performed by an excellent band that elevates their status from much-ballyhooed upstarts to entrenched death metal heavy hitters. The hype, and popularity, are deserved. Here’s to more nastiness in the years to come.
Gatecreeper drops October 4th via Relapse Records, and is available for pre-order on the band’s Bandcamp page.