Let me get this out of the way up front: I can count on one hand the amount of “supergroups” that met or exceeded the expectations laid on them by the collective success of their individual parts. Most supergroups are, in my opinion, either time-wasting cash grabs or light, inconsequential collections of songs that simply give their members another creative outlet to pursue. I most certainly have nothing against the latter in particular, though I find both scenarios tend to produce lackluster musical content. In general, I just really tend to dislike supergroups on principle because so few of my experiences with them have stuck with me for any longer than the time it takes to spin them once or twice. This preconceived bias against supergroups as a concept reared its judgy head when I first got wind of Umbra Vitae. An amalgamation of members from Converge, Wear Your Wounds, The Red Chord, Uncle Acid and The Deadbeats, and Job for a Cowboy, Umbra Vitae peddle a form of hardcore-infused, raging death metal that on paper sounds like it should be amazing, but given my history with this type of band configuration I jumped into my first listen with some tempered expectations. But, as has often been the case in my music consumption journey, general rules are made to be broken.
Before things get out of hand, it’s important to note that Umbra Vitae’s debut Shadow of Life is nowhere near as good as Converge’s best material, or perhaps even Job for a Cowboy’s for that matter (though this second assertion is far more debatable than the first). Which isn’t in any way intended as a slight toward the record. Jane Doe in particular has become an untouchable historic artifact in the metallic hardcore world, so expecting new material featuring Bannon to reach those rarified heights is just plain silly. Shadow of Life is also not in any way attempting to mimic the past stylistic successes of its various members, instead attempting (and almost exclusively succeeding) in carving out a sonic space of its own. It’s a knock-down, drag-out death metal juggernaut that blends the talents of these musicians and songwriters superbly, culminating in a supergroup record that, shockingly, absolutely works.
After a brief, atmosphere building intro, Umbra Vitae waste little time establishing their own unique approach. Blast beats, provided by Uncle Acid drummer Jon Rice (who absolutely murders the kit throughout), undergird “Ethereal Emptiness” with a more than satisfactory amount of raw aggression. The guitar work here, provided by Mike McKenzie and Sean Martin of WYW, vacillates between open, melodic riffs and righteous chugs that are almost impossible not to snap your neck to. It’s a fantastic opening statement to the album, and serves as a highlight reel of the impressive elements and performances these musicians will continue to bring. Subsequent track “Atheist Aesthetic” brings an equal amount of instrumental fire, but Jacob Bannon’s vocals steal the show. His signature throat-ripping scream is as present and powerful as it has been in any Converge record, but within a more definitively death metal context his vocals take on a whole new level of outright rage. Bannon’s range is on display front and center during “Mantra of Madness”, jumping from bark to shredded growl with a ferocity that fully complements the intensity of the music behind it. It’s an amalgamation of sounds and textures that works incredibly well given these musicians’ unique backgrounds, and imbues the first half of the album with a welcome kick.
Another aspect of Shadow of Life that is thoroughly enjoyable is its dead-on devotion to death metal aesthetics. While there’s far too much melodic variety to pin this release as a straight mid-90s Floridian death metal homage, there are enough Morbid Angelisms in the middle section of the album in particular to give death metal heads plenty to scream about. “Polluted Paradise” is a straightforward bruise cruise of guitar pyrotechnics and oppressively heavy riffs that never strays from extremely fun territory. But “Intimate Inferno”, with its Full of Hell-channeling intensity and brash audio violence, is as close to death metal nirvana as one could hope for from a group of musicians who aren’t playing this type of music full time. It’s a monstrous track that puts both the bands surprising level of restraint and abject ferocity on full display, and is an absolute highlight not only of the album, but in the careers of these artists at large.
Surprisingly, there’s very little about this album I dislike. Outside of some thoroughly interesting and entertaining songwriting choices and uniformly fantastic performances, the record sounds incredible. Kurt Ballou’s mix here is among his best in recent years, balancing sheer intensity with a low-end chunkiness that allows the drums to feel oppressively present throughout the record without ever crowding out the fantastic guitar work. Bannon’s voice is mixed like a knife, slicing and shredding through the maelstrom with all the uninterrupted passion he’s known for. It is, from start to finish, a thoroughly enjoyable and fierce death metal record.
Umbra Vitae’s fantastic debut is a pure barnburner of a death metal record. Skeptical as I may be of this type of band configuration, Shadow of Life has added another deep and bloody notch to the all-too-bare wall of fame for metal supergroups that actually work. I will be spinning this record for many months to come, as will most death metal fans willing to give it a fair shake. Shadow of Life is well worth your time, and a record that I will continue to highly recommend to anyone looking for yet another death metal shock to the system in an already banner year for the genre.
Shadow of Life drops May 1st via Deathwish Inc., and is available for pre-order on Bandcamp.