Every year, it seems like there’s one particular death metal album released in the early months of the year that sets my quality standards for the next several months. Last year in January, Alterage’s The Approaching Roar hit me like a brick to the temple, while in 2018 Portal’s Ion destroyed my brain and continues to do so on a regular basis. We may be a bit later in the year for my traditional revelatory moment, but Xenobiotic’s thoroughly excellent Mordrake takes the crown as taste setter for 2020. If the rest of the year unleashes a death metal salvo of comparable quality, we’re in for another doozy friends.
For those unfamiliar with these Australian death dealers, Xenobiotic peddles a blend of technical death metal and deathcore songwriting that’s melodically rich while being refreshingly unfussy in execution. The band’s sterling debut Prometheus was a titanic wall of riffs that showcased the band’s penchant for catchiness without sacrificing an oddly accessible approach technical songwriting. But for all of its merits, Mordrake displays definitive growth in nearly every way. If Prometheus enticed you, Mordrake will concert you into a true believer.
Opener “Insomnia” is as definitive and introductory statement as I could ask for to prove my above praise. Presenting a selection of essential riffs that are coupled to an absolutely fantastic performance behind the kit by Mikey Godwin, it’s a hard-hitting punch to the face that is as vicious as it is well executed. Vocalist TJ Sinclair delivers a varied and electric performance as well, providing a heavy amount of fire to the proceedings. But all of this is just a mere taster for the behemoth that is “Light That Burns the Sky”, which showcases the band’s ability to bring the breakdown pain when it’s warranted. “Inverted” brings a similar, though somehow even more forceful vibe than its predecessor, thundering through riffs with absolute abandon. Hats off to guitarists Nish Raghavan and Cam Moore for throwing absolute heat throughout this entire record.
At this point, I would be satisfied for the band to muscle through the remainder of the record with an equal amount of sheer ferocity, but one of the more remarkable aspects of Mordrake is its ability to generate a variety of sounds and textures into its muscular track list. “Saphris”, one of the highlights of the album, is a much more subdued affair in its opening moments, presenting an epic, soaring composition that is only amplified in effectiveness by a guest vocal spot by Departe’s Sam Dishington, whose earnest voice adds an entirely new and welcome dimension to Xenobiotic’s music. Even bridge tracks “Dysphoria” and “Thalamus” add uniqueness to the record, giving the record jolts of subdued oddness and manic aggression. All of these elements congeal most spectacularly in a two-part finale that brings every one of the band’s unique talents to best in nine minutes of pure death metal ecstasy. It’s an amazing capper to a thoroughly excellent record.
Mordrake blows nearly every death metal album I’ve heard this year out of the water in every measurable metric. The riffs are heavy, varied and crisp, the production presents a delightful balance of heft and clarity, and the songwriting is exceptional throughout. When it comes to accessible and exceptional death metal, Xenobiotic are the standard bearers in 2020, and it would take a monumental feat to top them. An utterly fantastic record.
Mordrake is out now via Unique Leader Records.