Greetings, centurions! It’s been aeons since we ventured into Death’s Vault (two years, to be exact). Grab a lantern, take one last swig from your chalice, and follow my lead.

For those who forgot, here’s a refresher. Whereas Death’s Door is our monthly roundup of the latest and greatest death metal, Death’s Vault is a space to highlight classics and deep cuts from the genre’s formative years. Our previous installments focused on the latter, and I intend to keep it that way in my attempt to revive the column. We all know how fantastic and important bands like Death and Morbid Angel are; do you really need another post reminding you as much? The reason we love writing and you (hopefully) love reading Heavy Blog is discovering new music. And considering how death metal has mostly lurked in the underground throughout its existence, there’s plenty of hidden gems worth highlighting.

But enough context; let’s venture deeper into the crypts and enter our first tomb. Are you ready for caveman riffs and plenty of “OUGHs”? Too bad! We’re kicking things off with progressive death-doom from Germany’s Dark Millennium and their debut album Ashore the Celestial Burden (1992). I know, I know, this may not be the kind of death metal the kids are into these days, but trust me, you’ll appreciate discovering their brand of proto-avant-garde metal as much as I did.

Dark Millennium formed in 1989 and released their first demo (The Apocryphal Wisdom) in 1991, both seminal years for the evolution of death metal. The Apocryphal Wisdom and its follow-up Of Sceptre Their Ashes May Be (1992) saw the band operating in the realm of classic death-doom. Yet, there are plenty of fun, adventurous moments throughout. The title track on The Apocryphal Wisdom is a 12-minute doom epic equal parts melodic and filthy, while Of Sceptre Their Ashes May Be sees the band coming into their own with elevated songwriting chops. Once again, the title track on Sceptre is the demo’s pinnacle, highlighted by some creepy dark ambient atmospheres. Both releases were compiled and reissued in 2015 as Out of the Past, which is definitely worth your time if you’re at all interested in the genre’s old-school heyday.

Ashore the Celestial Burden seamlessly picks up where Sceptre left off, so much so that their respective opening and closing track is “Below the Holy Fatherlands.” Yet, due to obvious growth as musicians and signing to a label (Massacre Records), the album version is a step above the band’s original demo. The album’s improved production offers more clarity and allowed the band to add some extra studio touches, particularly with guitar effects that add to the album’s overall celestial theme. Half of Ashore features re-recorded and/or re-worked songs from the band’s demos, all of which benefit significantly from the enhanced songwriting and production quality.

Yet, the album’s new compositions are where Dark Millennium’s songwriting truly shines. The band experiments with their sound and dips into progressive territory, occasionally verging on “avant-garde metal” territory. Of course, that term is difficult to nail down, and I wouldn’t say anything on Ashore is completely outside the boundaries of ’90s metal norms. But the band certainly took further liberties with the death-doom template and delivers on the adventurous moments from their earlier material.

After another re-recorded demo track, “Spiritual,” the first moment of newfound experimentation arrives on “Black Literature.” While the song is also a re-work of an older version, the updated production, composition, and especially vocal delivery make a huge difference. The guitar work takes on shades of early progressive death metal, with Death being an obvious point of comparison. This isn’t added instead of the band’s death-doom roots but instead enhances the slower riffs with elevated musicianship. Meanwhile, vocalist Christian Mertens offers an expressive, impassioned delivery entirely unique from traditional ’90s death metal vocals.

The band continues these ideas on “Inside the Sunburnt Thought of Frost” and “Father Legatus – Of Symbols, Nature and Birth,” which feature several stretches of slower prog riffing and some light organ woven with the band’s death-doom fare. Yet, it’s “Beyond the Dragon’s Eye” where the band toys with their formula most significantly. The track unravels as a medieval folk tale updated as an experimental prog-death suite, shifting between virtuosic guitar passages, unhinged vocals, and acoustic balladry. The band take this formula to epic heights on album closer “The Atmosphere,” another 7+ minute exploration of the outer edges that defined ’90s prog-death.

The following year, Dark Millennium took an even deeper dive into these fringes on their sophomore album, Diana Read Peace (1993). Tracks like “Dead in Love” sound like proto-Pallbearer, while other moments amplify the introduction of electronics and organ seen on Ashore. The band returned in the 2010s after an extended hiatus and appear to be an active voice in the progressive death-doom underground. However, these are tales for another day, and it’s time to retrace our steps and close the vault for now. To recap, Ashore is one of the most eclectic ’90s death-doom records I’ve encountered, and one that deserves your attention as a criminally underrated hidden gem of the genre.

Visit Dark Millennium’s Bandcamp for music and online store for merch.

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