It’s that time again. Death’s Door. Let’s go. The world is a pestilential pit of sickness, stupidity, and a very uncomfortable cocktail of anxiety, depression, and boredom. But it isn’t all bad. Death metal is awesome, and 2020 has been absolutely loaded with quality content. Month over month I’m becoming more and more impressed with what I’m hearing. Feral, experimental, and just plain nasty. It’s the soundtrack to an insane global moment, and one of the few bright spots in an abysmal year thus far.
If you like melody and brutality, April offers up a rotten plate of meaty death that should satisfy even the most discerning metalhead. One of the albums dropped this month is a no question year-end lister, while the rest here have been in constant rotation throughout the month. We’re stoked to share some of these highlights with you, and encourage you to add your own picks in the comments.
That’s all. Let’s get to the music. Death metal forever.
Cream of the Crop
Ulcerate – Stare Into Death and Be Still
Hype is a curious thing. It can bring music to broader audiences that may not exactly warrant such widespread attention, or crush worthy releases under the weight of absurdly unrealistic reactions and god-level expectations. Ulcerate, those technical death metal behemoths from New Zealand, have most certainly fallen into the latter category of the hype cycle over the past several years. With the release of their fifth full-length record, Shrines of Paralysis, the growing maelstrom of anticipation around the band’s next release intensified to a fever pitch, lasting all the way to this month when Stare Into Death and Be Still was released to wildly enthusiastic acclaim. There are few death metal albums (outside of last year’s excellent Blood Incantation release) that I can recall generating this level of delirious praise across the metal blogosphere, and similar to Hidden History of the Human Race it’s hard for fans not to brace themselves for a wave of backlash criticizing the record more harshly than is warranted simply because of its initial responses. Which is sad, because the band didn’t ask for this type of wild acclaim. They just crafted a thoroughly fantastic record that is getting lost in a wave of critical delirium. Is it the best death metal record of all-time? No. Is it the most singularly incredible death metal album of the last decade? It’s far too early to tell. Is it regardless worthy of commendation as a truly exceptional and intricate work of death metal art and one of this year’s best releases thus far? Absolutely.
Those familiar with Ulcerate know the drill. Stare Into Death and Be Still peddles dissonance, technical wizardry, and a certifiably incendiary style of instrumental execution that feels straight-up ready to burst into flames at any given moment. Fans of the band’s previous works will find all of the core elements they know and love out in full force throughout Stare Into Death and Be Still, so on one level it’s a smashing success just by the standards of core aesthetic and quality maintenance. But ever the sonic innovators, sticking with the base formula wasn’t in the plan for the band’s sixth record. But rather than heading down the hyper dissonant and chaotic songwriting route championed by bands like Dodecahedron or Mitochondrion and the great slew of disso-death adjacent bands, or the head-spinning progressive technicality of Ingurgitating Oblivion or Imperial Triumphant, Ulcerate took an unexpected turn by amplifying their sense of melody in their songwriting. This emphasis on powerful, often mid-tempo emotive songwriting makes Stare Into Death and Be Still perhaps the most emotionally resonant and darkly beautiful record of the band’s career.
“The Lifeless Advance” kicks off the album wasting no time establishing this enhanced melodic paradigm, churning out an emotive and deeply resonant death metal onslaught that re-establishes Ulcerate as a band to beat in this space of the music world. Jaime Saint Merat’s drum work is once more sublime, offering a cascading torrent of dynamic fills and complex rhythmic structures that few others in the genre can provide with such shocking regularity. Michael Hoggard’s guitars are also exceptional, and shine most brightly during the album’s title track, which features several spectacular riffs that have been bouncing around my head since I first heard them over a month ago. On performative levels, Ulcerate show up with as much gusto and dramatic bluster as they ever have, but their focus on making melody shine through the general chaos is what makes their latest offering all the more special. “Drawn Into the Next Void” may be one of the most diverse, interesting, and thoroughly transfixing tracks the band have yet written, serving as a near-perfect distillation of the powerful elements Ulcerate brought to the table this time around. It’s a brilliant composition that shows Ulcerate at the top of their game.
There isn’t anything wrong with this record. From the get-go, it’s a grower of a death metal juggernaut that takes its time to sink its teeth into you, and once it does it will hold most listeners and fans of the genre in its crushing embrace. It just may not have the power to stop the planet from spinning. If you approach this album with excitement and a discerning critical eye, you’ll find something well worth the time investment, and a collection of tracks that may end up on your own year-end list. If you expect the greatest album you’ve ever heard, you will most likely leave disappointed. But who cares how it measures up in the grand scheme of death metal history? It’s new Ulcerate, it’s here now, and it’s excellent.
Best of the Rest
Aborted – La Grande Mascarade
I’ve become increasingly enamored by Aborted over the past few years. 2018’s TerrorVision still makes its way onto my death metal rotation fairly regularly, and a deep dive into their back catalog reveals an absolute treasure trove of quality, grindy brutal death metal. Similar to their stylistic familiars Benighted, their 2020 release is a compact ass-kicking that is a worthy addition to their storied discography.
La Grande Mascarade is a fairly short EP, so I’ll keep this review in kind. The music contained therein is pure Aborted in every sense of the word. It’s an insanely brutal, violent, punishing sonic affair that should please anyone who’s ever even remotely enjoyed the band’s music. But the band does a great job of mixing their most vicious salvos with some mid-tempo elements that serve the music well. “Gloom and the Art of Tribulation” features a doomy passage about two-thirds of the way through the track, opening an otherwise blistering assault to a hefty dose of space that serves as a delightful calm before the storm that is “Serpent of Depravity”. Although oppressively intense, these tracks never lack a distinct sense of melody that makes things interesting throughout. It’s a short, epic collection of tracks that almost perfectly distill what the band does well.
If you like Aborted and brutal death metal in general, you’ll like this. It’s really that simple.
Azath – Through A Warren of Shadow
I’ve been working my way through Steven Erikson’s The Malazan Book of the Fallen for well over a year now, and I’ve gotta tell you, it’s incredible. Being a huge Tolkien fan and fairly deeply immersed in the literary fantasy world at large, words fail in trying to describe how utterly spectacular, narratively complex, and geographically sprawling this sequence of books is. There are few, if any, apt comparisons to its majesty, and all but the most prominent of fantasy novels are required to kneel before its blood- and magic-soaked throne. Californian/Canadian death metal band Azath, in similar fashion to Malazan obsessed bands like Caladan Brood, have zeroed in on this enormous world as a principal inspiration for their music, and their debut record Through a Warren of Shadow is a deliciously old school tribute to one of the best fantasy series of all time.
For what it’s worth, let’s make it plain right out of the gate Azath aren’t trying to wow anyone with technical pyrotechnics or clever songwriting here. On both performative and songwriting levels, this record is a straight-up old school worshipping bruiser from start to finish, and after having given it several spins I wouldn’t have it any other way. “Draconian Impalement” sounds exactly like its title indicates, with punishing drums and fast riffs that put listeners in an audio chokehold that doesn’t relent throughout the remainder of the record. Pulling in a bit of that old school fuzz that bands like Ascended Dead, Father Befouled, and essentially the rest of the Dark Descent line-up have re-popularized over the past several years, the album balances an old school aesthetic and devotion to its thematic content wonderfully. If you like this track, you’ll enjoy the rest of the record.
Fantasy and metal have been closely associated since the dawn of the genre, and there are plenty of ascendant and utterly cringe-worthy moments in their long romance. But Azath most certainly land in the former category, busting out a record that’s deeply devoted to its source material without sacrificing their musical edge. It’s a fun, fast, bruising record that fans of both old school death metal and the Malazan book series should enjoy.
Black Curse – Endless Wound
Denver’s unbelievable metal scene is well-known by this point, but it bears repeating. Genre heavyweights like Blood Incantation, Dreadnought, The Flight of Sleipnir, Khemmis, Of Feather and Bone, Primitive Man, Spectral Voice, Wayfarer and more call the Mile High City home, something my comrade and Colorado-native detailed in his review for Endless Wound. Indeed, Black Curse is a Denver death metal band through and through, with a lineup comprised of members from Spectral Voice, Blood Incantation, Khemmis, and Primitive Man. Yet, more importantly than their origin and supergroup status, Black Curse make incredible death metal that rivals the achievements of their peers.
There’s a lot to love about Endless Wound, but what I appreciate most is Black Curse’s rawer approach to blackened death metal. That tag is usually reserved for cleaner, tighter bands like Behemoth and Hate, but it’s been expanding over the year to cover different blends of black and death metal. Endless Wound channels the roar and ferocity of both genres seven embodiments of pure evil. Black Curse fall somewhere between slower-paced war metal and a more modern-sounding combination of second-wave black metal and the raw death metal released around the same period. It’s vicious, abrasive music that leverages every point of aggression from its source material to create a new level fo intensity.
Endless Wound is hardly a one-trick pony, though. Having musicians with backgrounds in forward-thinking death metal, stoner doom, and blackened sludge is bound to inspire experimentation, and indeed it does. Tracks like “Enraptured by Decay” contain excursions form the band’s blackened vortex, with the deathly murk lifting off into an atmospheric, celestial passage towards the song’s finale. The title track slows to a crawl during its midsection, at first appearing as a respite from the chaos only to reveal snarling, wicked vocals and a viscous congealment of blackened riffs.
There are few death metal records each year Jonathan and I consider “mandatory listening.” Everyone has their own stylistic preferences, and what vibes with some won’t with others. Endless Wound is a clear-cut must-listen for 2020 and in the running for one of the genre’s top releases of the year.
Caustic Wound – Death Posture
So I might be stepping into Matt’s territory here, given he already dubbed Death Posture worthy of a Grind My Gears entry. But this deathgrind supergroup is heavily indebted to both halves of their genre label, and more importantly, I want to recommend Caustic Wound as many times as possible for the remainder of the year. I’ve rarely encountered deathgrind albums that so perfectly encapsulate and blend the core ethos of each subgenre, and as a result, Death Posture absolutely fucking RIPS.
So about that supergroup mention earlier: Caustic Wound has an absolutely stacked lineup. Magrudergrind drummer and grind legend Casey Moore is joined by members of some of death metal’s most noteworthy young bands, including Cerebral Rot, Fetid, and Mortiferum. Even if you were unaware of the musicians involved, the collision of these two worlds is apparent throughout the album.
Moore does an impressive job adapting some staples of death metal drumming, particularly when he offers some mid-paced, booming tom and double kick patterns when his bandmates slow things down. But his driving, grinding blasts compliment the intense death metal bursts the band unleashes wave after after wave on the listener. Everything folks love about the Pacific NW death metal is on full display here, particularly with the scene’s signature “new-old-school” riffs and guitar whines.
I didn’t know I needed these worlds to collide before hearing Death Posture, but it hasn’t left my regular rotation since it released. Death and grind stalwarts may not always see eye-to-eye, but Caustic Wound have cultivated a wide expanse of unholy common ground with their debut. Here’s hoping this supergroup considers this the start of something new rather than a one-off experiment. I need more grinding filth in my life.
Light Dweller – Hominal
Last year, Scott brought the hype for Light Dweller’s stellar debut Incandescent Crucifix. Deservedly so. A dissonant, techy slab of blackened death metal, it’s a record that has only grown on me with time. Just as I was feeling like I’d unpacked it’s garish mysteries, Hominal arrives to make its predecessor sound like a half-baked test run. As far as sophomore records are concerned, this is about as wonderful and confident a step as could be hoped for, and catapults Light Dweller from an upstart project into a serious contender for blackened death metal AOTY. Yep. It’s that good.
“13:12” kicks things off with a hazy, reverse engineered bit of death metal gimmickry, recalling the subliminal Satanism of Ye Oldest of Metals. It’s a fun way to start a record that ratchets up the intensity with each passing moment and very seldom relents over its concise 37-minute runtime. “Thrall Beguiled” and “Isolation Devalorize” showcase Light Dweller’s increasingly sharp instrumental skillset with some thoroughly effective guitar work that can stand toe to toe with any of the best passages written this year. It’s a tour de force of excellent craftsmanship and engaging songwriting that I’m nowhere close to tired of.
Blackened death metal seldom gets more interesting and engaging than this. Light Dweller has with Hominal grown exponentially as a project and released one of the finest death metal albums of the year. I’ll be listening to this one for many months to come, and I heartily recommend you do so if you haven’t already done so.
Like Rats – Death Monolith
Deathcore is having its “metalcore moment.” Once a workshopped-description for bands literally combining metal and hardcore (Cro-Mags, Discharge, Suicidal Tendencies, etc.), the genre now encompasses a wide breadth of bands with limited sonic commonality. Converge, Hatebreed, Killswitch Engage, and Asking Alexandria are all technically under the metalcore umbrella, yet you wouldn’t unilaterally recommend them to someone interested in metalcore without knowing what strain they preferred.
A similar thing is happening with deathcore. Even the jump from Despised Icon to Whitechapel to Chelsea Grin still maintained a common thread. Yet, in an interesting turn of events, a new wave of bands is approaching “death” and “core” in a more literal, classical sense, producing music that fits the deathcore label but not in the way it’s been used. Bands like Gatecreeper and Homewrecker have earned attention for their approach to this formula, and now I find myself wondering if Like Rats fits this label as well.
This might seem like a superfluous discussion, but “deathcore” is still a dirty word in some circles, and I don’t want to scare people away from fantastic releases like Death Monolith. Some people might be picturing nothing but gratuitous breakdowns, which couldn’t be farther from what Like Rats accomplish here. Death Monolith is perhaps the best pure synthesis of new-school hardcore and metalcore with old-school death metal.
Similar the the sentiments I expressed above about Caustic Wound, fans of both styles Like Rats channels should find a lot to love about the band’s sound. The riffing and vocals remind me of a rougher, meatier version of Tucker-era Morbid Angel, perhaps most reminiscent of Gateways to Annihilation. The band then elevates this groove and mid-paced heaviness with the inherent heaviness of hardcore, and it creates an absolutely pummeling combination tailor-made for moshing.
While our scene collectively sorts out the definition of “deathcore,” don’t let the label scare you away from Death Monolith. Like Rats have carved out their own niche that balances the strengths of both genres in this much-maligned combination, and as such, it should appeal the very crowd that typically writes off anything but “pure” death metal. Death Monolith is a heavy, crushing album you should definitely have on your radar.
Auroch – Stolen Angelic Tongues
Tech death has evolved considerably over the years, and Auroch‘s new mini-album captures that evolution seamlessly. Across these cavernous, technical tracks, the band adapts old-school tech death elements for the genre’s new songwriting standards, striking a unique and impressive balance. They also channels the “magical and spiritual traditions of South America and the Caribbean,” helping to further magnify the scope and majesty of their songwriting.
Tzompantli – Tlamanalli
According to the Bandcamp page for Tzompantli, their name is derived from the Nahuatl (Native Mexican) word for “skull rack,” which were public displays made from the skulls of war captives and sacrificial victims. That fact is the single most brutal thing I encountered in April, and it’s an apt name for what unfolds on Tlamanalli. The band crafts a “mesoamerican, prehispanic” blend of funeral doom, death-doom, and beatdown hardcore, like Disembowelment and Xibalba battling over who will be the builder and materials for a tzompantli.
Abysmal Dawn – Phylogenesis (tech death)
Benighted – Obscene Repressed (goregrind, brutal death metal)
The Black Dahlia Murder – Verminous (melodeath)
WVRM – Colony Collapse (deathgrind)