Touted as “strange and unorthodox”, Tithe are immediately at the mercy of such branding. The Portland trio do enlist the drive of grindcore, and frostbitten touches of blackened death, but really there’s nothing too out of leftfield on display. That doesn’t mean that when the band are firing on all three scalding cylinders there isn’t plenty to enjoy. Hopping from slow, bruising riffs and scale-shifting, scything tremolo runs, Penance does its very best at emulating without copying and improving without losing touch of the origins of extreme metal.
The initial double dose of death in “A Single Rose” and “Scum” is plentiful and completed by the manic pace of grind and thrash kids who grew out of their denim jackets; a lustful loveletter to the originators of death metal and the new staples of the genre’s throwback acts. The same can be said for the closing double salvo of “Discordia Tetrahedron” and “Lullaby”, with the latter belching out a thick, smokey stoner riff for half of the track before kicking the stool and dropping right into mania again. It’s classic death metal, but not really. Nouveau death metal, maybe?
Playing the “influences” guessing game on a death metal record isn’t too easy, but the East Coast touches on certain tracks definitely stand out. Opener “A Single Rose” spits out a dirtier version of metallic hardcore/powerviolence before fully engaging in murky death metal riffing; a fantastic opener that unfortunately sets the bar really fucking high for the rest of Penance. “Apostasy” opens with a carefully picked Kurt Ballou pattern that bleeds into the familiar structure of fast section-slow section before disappearing entirely. It’s in these slower sections too that some of the guitar lines start to sound like Slayer – if Slayer started playing in the endless, miserable woods of Oregon instead of the sun-blasted concrete of the Bay Area. None of these are negative comparisons, but they do highlight the almost formulaic pattern of Penance’s lesser moments.
The production on guitarist Eiseman’s vocals is fantastic – evocative of the classic cavernous death metal vocal of ye olden days – but even this becomes to stagnate at times. There isn’t much variety in the cadence and delivery of these vocals, so after x amount of time (user depending) they start to disappear into the smog of sharp-riffs. With only three members as well, there’s an expectation for the bass to really grab hold of lingering passages and revitalise them, but other than hearing the warm buzz of the low-register strings through a few quieter moments, the instrument is pretty much lost. It’s a shame.
Penance might lose its way around the midpoint of its sizeable run-time, but kicks off with a bang and closes in much the same fashion. Tithe’s careful shaping of death metal passages relies heavily on a few tricks that almost wear out their welcome, but the bulk of the gnarled, incessant riffing will be enjoyable to anyone who lives on the darker side of the tracks. The standout tracks do lift the record a few levels above a regulation extreme metal experience – employing some immensely pleasurable shifts from deathgrind into more swampy, old-school extremity – and on the back of these individual efforts, Penance should be played loud until it becomes abrasive. How long that will take will differ on an individual basis.
Penance is available now Tartarus Records.