Welcome once more to Death’s Door. Wipe your feet on the mat and pull up a bone throne. It’s ugly out there.
I can’t think of a time in recent memory where I’ve listened to so much death metal over a sustained period of time. There were weeks over the past three months where I listened to almost nothing but, and being a man of refined and diverse tastes (HAHAHAHAHA) that’s saying something. Perhaps it’s the world’s being on both figurative and literal fire that has facilitated such an obsession with the ugliest and best music on the planet. Yeah, that’s probably it.
What a fucking god forsaken piece of shit dumpster fire 2020 has become. When we’re not being torched as a species by a virus that has threatened the lives of the world’s most vulnerable (and that government and health officials responded to with textbook inadequacy), our cities are literally being torched in response to murderous, fascist psychopaths squeezing the life out of unarmed humans. While we’re all thankful that our new year’s resolutions were effectively cancelled due to external circumstances (one more year of sanctioned procrastination!), there’s little to be said about 2020 that isn’t filled with disdain and disgust.
Thankfully, death metal once again delivered a fantastic slate of releases that fill that bloody, gaping hole in our hearts with enough vile ugliness to reflect the putridity of our current condition as a species. Each month, death metal seems to grow stronger in quality, and May was no exception to that rule. As always, my fearless compatriot Scott is here with me to dole out some recommendations from this past month’s bumper crop of releases. So let’s get to it.
Fuck police brutality and the system that aids and abets it. Black lives matter. Death metal reigns. Forever.
Cream of the Crop
Cryptic Shift – Visitations From Enceladus
The nexus of technical thrash, progressive death metal, and sci-fi is one of metal’s most rewarding subgenres. At least, it is when bands strike the right balance between these influences. Other than Revocation, the subgenre has seen few prominent voices rise up from the underground (at least, none that have avoided moral bankruptcy). Visitations From Enceladus clearly demonstrates that Cryptic Shift should be elevated to this exclusive pantheon. After years refining their sound with demos, EPs, and splits, the English quartet have crafted a full-length debut that’s sure to go down as an instant classic within their genre niche.
What sets Cryptic Shift apart is hard to describe in distinct terms, but here goes. Across Enceladus, there’s just simply more of…well, everything. A keener ear for melody and how it should operate within otherwise intense, cacophonous subgenres; diverse influences from the realms of death and thrash, particularly with the incorporation of dissonance and modern death metal riffing; and a unique embrace of darker sci-fi themes, manifesting in progressive instrumental stylings and auxiliary sound design that conjures themes of space’s bleak, desolate vacuum.
Listeners need not look any further than “Moonbelt Immolator,” a 26-minute, six-part suite that touches on every aspect of Cryptic Shift’s sound. While some bands might built toward a track of this magnitude at the end of their album, Cryptic Shift immediately launch the listener into deep space and lead them through every corner of the cosmos. The quartet accomplish this through a true team effort, as each member shines brightly to an equal degree. Nimble yet crushing guitar work, resonant and fluid fretless bass, and percussion to fit every mood come together to create an endless stream of brilliant ideas. Not a moment of the track’s nearly half-hour run time feels like filler; the sheer quantity of distinct movements is simply awing. From ripping tech thrash to psychedelic prog rock noodling to devastating death metal riffs, Cryptic Shift excel at everything they tackle and string each stylistic shift together seamlessly.
The remaining trio of songs on Enceladus sees the quartet flexing adjacent compositional muscles. Each feels in line with a traditional Revocation tracks, albeit channeled through Cryptic Shift’s unique, cosmic compositional lens. Those daunted by the scope of “Moonbelt Immolator” might start with the back half of the album, as they operate with similar sonic palette in a fraction of the time. Yet, I encourage a head-on approach instead, as the three tracks succeeding the album’s centerpiece serve to flesh out different ideas the band presented under a more focused microscope. More importantly, Cryptic Shift’s songwriting is adept enough to make the album as a whole feel like a seamless, dynamic experience.
Some day in the not so distant future, we’ll reference Cryptic Shift and Enceladus as a basis of comparison for the next generation of spaced-out thrashy tech death bands. Plain and simple, this is a landmark release for metal that will have broader influence beyond the band’s specific genre niche. You’ll be hard-pressed to find a songwriting tour de force quite as potent as Enceladus in 2020, and I can assure you Jonathan and I will be ranking this highly among our favorite metal releases of the year.
Best of the Rest
Cosmic Putrefaction – The Horizons Toward Which Splendour Withers
Death metal. IN SPACE. It’s become quite the trend lately. I mean, Timeghoul was peddling this shit long before the Blood Incantation’s and Tomb Mold’s of the world, but it’s hard to look out at the modern death metal landscape and not see the influence of the great inky unknown on current death metal bands. Does a crowded scene (Wormed, Gorephilia, Gigan, Nucleus, Vale of Pnath, Outer Heaven, Origin, Artificial Brain, and the above-mentioned Cryptic Shift just to name a few…) have room for another journey into the cosmic twilight? Of course it does, and Italy’s Cosmic Putrefaction is yet another shining example of what death metal’s trip to the stars is capable of achieving.
This one-man wrecking crew’s first record, At the Threshold of the Great Chasm, impressed both Scott and I for its ambitious and progressive approach to a thoroughly old school sound. Tapping into that Morbid Angel-esque vein of death metal goodness, there was a lot to love. But the record wasn’t without its flaws, as one will find in most any debut. Short and punishing as it was, I found myself revisiting the world that G.G. so meticulously constructed less and less as time went on. But The Horizons Toward Which Splendour Withers is a notable step up in every possible way. Featuring foggy yet discernable production that lends the album that murky feel which has now become a staple in this brand of death metal, G.G. attacks his instruments with even more vigor and focus than were found in Threshold. Clocking in at six minutes longer than its predecessor and with three fewer songs, Horizons highlights a new songwriting focus for the band that, in my mind, is more suitable to its conceptual content. “The Landscape Sublimates Oblivion to Obliteration” ebbs and flows in a way that rivals passages within Hidden History of the Human Race, capturing the essence of old school death metal while propelling it into more progressive territory. These tracks are uniformly interesting and engaging, and G.G.’s performances and songwriting even more lethal. If you enjoyed Threshold, there’s little doubt that Horizons will give you even more satisfaction.
One-man death metal bands releasing great albums was somewhat of a minor theme in May, and Cosmic Putrefaction has most certainly cemented itself as one of the more talented and enjoyable acts in that category. In an already overstuffed genre convention, it’s certainly more difficult to stand out, but Cosmic Putrefaction carves its own formidable space in this vast expanse with expert precision. A fantastic follow-up to a great debut.
Cosmovore – Into the Necrosphere
Sometimes I’ll spin a record just because the album art looks righteous, without doing any level of research into the band itself. This was the case with Cosmovore’s ferocious EP Into the Necrosphere, which features original and utterly compelling artwork by Zdzisław Beksiński. In this case, the record sounds just about identical to its cover: Fierce, dark, menacing and monolithic. This is a lethal dose of premium death metal that features not a single dull moment in its all-too-brief 26-minute runtime.
Trying to find comparisons for Into the Necrosphere will lead one down some dark and oppressively heavy roads. Think death metal with the tone-heavy weight of Mylingar (particularly in “Vessel”) mixed with the all-consuming atmosphere of Altarage and the off-kilter dissonance of Light Dweller or Noctambulist. It’s a winning combo of propulsive dread that immediately establishes Cosmovore as a band to watch in this twisted space of the death metal world. The album’s title track kicks off the proceedings with a blast-heavy lurch that builds in its opening seconds from a distant howl to a deafening roar, consuming listeners in a world of death metal fire and blood. Feeding on cyclical patterns that complement the band’s more dissonant leanings is a strategy that pays off in a big way on Into the Necrosphere, with tracks like “The Watchers” setting up riffs that show up with regularity throughout, but are at just the right moment elbowed out of the way to make room for wilder, more dissonant riffs. The band don’t solely peddle in break-neck aggression, though, with finale “All-Devourer” offering nearly two solid minutes of the nastiest death-doom you’ll hear this side of Hooded Menace. It’s a brilliant mash of ideas that is executed with skill, and time will only tell how this band will develop from here.
Sometimes you can judge a book by its (disgusting) cover, and I’m grateful to the metal gods that I was compelled to give Into the Necrosphere as listen. One of my favorite surprises of the year so far, and I cannot wait to see where Cosmovore takes their sound next. But until we get an inevitable doozy of a full-length, we’ll have their debut EP’s rotten, desiccated sonic corpse to keep us company. A brutally effective opening volley.
Esoctrilihum – Eternity of Shaog
The law of diminishing returns is an immutable economic law that in no way shape or form applies to Esoctrilihum. The French one-man blackened death metal juggernaut has been churning out releases at an alarming rate since its inception in 2017. Five full-length records later, one would assume that Asthaghul would have run out of ideas by now, or at the very least worn out his blistering welcome. But the development of Esoctrilihum has been anything but stale, with each new release building upon the last in songwriting focus, instrumental prowess, and sonic diversity. It seems to go without saying that each new album from this project is its best to date, and the same must be said about Eternity of Shaog.
Building on the epic scope and wild-natured songwriting of last year’s Telluric Ashes, Eternity of Shaog is an hour-plus long journey through the wildest recesses of the black and death metal worlds, championing riffs as a principal form of communication without ever devolving into some dry sort of chug-i-tude. As a songwriter, Asthaghul is becoming more focused in his approach, allowing these tracks to develop organically and with an appropriate dose of focus. Where Telluric Ashes often meandered, Eternity of Shaog maintains a clear sense of sonic direction throughout. Each track feels like quintessential Esoctrilihum, with each instrumental flourish feeling intentional and (for the most part) entirely necessary. In particular, the use of strings in songs like “Thritonh” and “Aylowenn Aela” are particularly unique and add a bold dynamic to each track, while the synths and keys in “Shtg” provide an effective breather from the general onslaught that is Esoctrilihum’s traditionally bludgeoning drum and guitar work. The whole record works together in a manner that feels always like Esoctrilihum without ever becoming too predictable.
I don’t know how the man does it, but Eternity of Shaog is another triumph of a record that I will most certainly be listening to for the next few months. I say “next few months” because that’s probably about how long it’s going to take Asthaghul to release his next opus. Regardless, Eternity of Shaog provides fantastic company to anyone looking for blackened death metal that flirts constantly with the progressive and avant-garde. Stellar work here.
Rannoch – Reflections Upon Darkness
Progressive death metal and I have a tumultuous relationship. I can rattle off the top of my head bands from death metal’s storied past (Gorguts, latter-day Death, early Opeth, Atheist, Cynic, etc.) that absolutely blew my mind with their technical and progressive music mastery. Modern day progressive death metal, however, is a bit less rich for me in content. There are certainly a handful of active prog death bands that release perennial bangers (Alkaloid, Akercocke, and Gorod, for sure), but the subgenre definitely isn’t a constant winner for me. So when I had Rannoch recommended to me under the progressive death metal moniker it honestly took me a while to get to it. Mainly because standard prog death hasn’t done much for me this year. But after giving this record a few listens, I feel very confident in stating that it’s a certified banger that I would heartily recommend to any and every progressive death metal fan.
On nearly every level, Reflections Upon Darkness is an effective slab of progressive death metal aggression. “Aggression” is the key word here, as much of the proggier side of death metal often feels neutered to me, as if in an effort to further their sound a band must inherently sacrifice the vast majority of its most menacing and heavy sounds. Rannoch laugh in the face of such faulty logic, blazing through impeccable, noodly solos, like in “De Heptarchia Mystica”, before crashing back down to earth in a fiery riff-fest that should get even the most meat-and-potatoes of metalheads snapping their necks. These tracks are laid almost invariably on a foundation of chunky, blistering riffs that are as punishing as they are engaging. But fans of the more adventurous side of progressive death metal will find plenty of tracks to love as well. “The Hanged Man” gently unfurls in such a way that it’s impossible not to get swept up in its low-key, melodramatic grandeur. But even that track features some fundamentally punishing passages, all aided by a production aesthetic that allows each instrument room to both breathe and punish. In short, it’s exactly the kind of progressive death metal that I can regularly enjoy.
Those who fall into a similar boat in regards to progressive death metal should definitely give Rannoch’s sophomore record a shot. More so than many in their subgenre, they do an impeccable job balancing the transcendent and the punishing, culminating in a record that satisfies on almost every level. Give it the time it deserves and I feel confident that you will leave with more than a few positive impressions. Fantastic progressive death metal.
Sinister – Deformation of the Holy Realm
Welcome to the first of two entries this month covering veteran bands refusing to spend their twilight years in purgatory. I doubt Sinister would even consider their career to be winding down, and with albums like Deformation of the Holy Realm, it’s difficult to disagree. Just last week I was compiling a list of hidden death metal gems to cover for Death’s Vault and marked down Diabolical Summoning (1993) as a worthy candidate. And yet, nearly 30 years removed from their sophomore triumph, Sinister are still etching their legacy in stone deep within the death metal pantheon.
To me, Sinister’s brand of death metal sounds like “refined deathgrind,” comparable to a controlled detonation. Their riffing and speed reminds me of contemporary bands like Aborted and Benighted, due in part to vocalist Aad Kloosterwaard’s righteous, throaty roar. Yet, the band’s approach is much more poised while still maintaining the kind of aggression fans might expect. And of course, the prominence of old school songwriting permeates the record, except Sinister lack any of the rust that often plagues veteran acts.
It’s this last point that I’ll close on, as it’s the main driver of my love for Deformation of the Holy Realm. While I appreciate established bands refreshing the OSDM template, it’s great to hear a band decades into their career continuing to evolve their sound. Sure, there are clear influences from everything Sinister has written before, but there’s a more prominent air of modern evolution, as if the band isn’t comfortable resting on their laurels and merely retreading old territory.
Tithe – Penance
Ugliness has been a staple for death metal since its inception. One need only look at the cover artwork for the granddaddy of all death metal records, Scream Bloody Gore, to claim this assertion to be true. Cannibal Corpse, Incantation, Carcass, and the majority of death metal’s initial group of bands gloried in the gore and wretchedness of it all, setting a new standard for audio and visual punishment. Portland death-grind masterminds Tithe understand this historical context as good as anyone in the game, as their debut full-length Penance readily attests. This is profoundly ugly, deliciously filthy music that gives not an ounce of sympathy to listeners’ expectations. This is raw, unfiltered death-grind at its most effective and provocative, waving the banner of death metal’s profound and inherent ugliness with pride and skill.
If opener “A Single Rose” doesn’t convince you of the band’s nefarious intent, might as well stop listening now. Punishing, lo-fi, and thoroughly vicious, I can’t think of a better way to kick off a death-grind album. Follow-up “Scum” is no less intense. In fact, it’s probably even more so. Ratcheting up the tension with unrelenting blasts that feel barely controlled by drummer Kevin Swartz and Matt Eiseman’s jagged, nasty guitar work, there’s little about this track that doesn’t feel suffocating. But Tithe separate themselves from the Full of Hell’s and Pig Destroyer’s of the world by adding an unexpected yet utterly effective slab of doom metal into the mix. “Mantra” spends its opening and closing moments bookending some maniacal grind with a few hefty slabs of doomy riffage, causing general tempo whiplash in a way that only adds to the menace. Gargantuan closer “Lullaby” offers some equally sludgy, doomy vibes, channeling Dragged Into Sunlight more than Napalm Death. It’s a fantastic amalgamation of extreme metal sounds that’s as fun as it is vicious.
I haven’t heard a death-grind album this year that is as punishing and diverse. If Penance is any indication, Tithe have an extremely bright future ahead of them. A nearly flawless display of pure sonic ugliness (with absolutely amazing cover artwork by Jef Whitehead to boot), Tithe vault themselves toward the top of the death-grind pantheon on their first swing. An immensely impressive debut. Get on this shit immediately.
Vader – Solitude in Madness
Back when concerts still happened, I caught Vader headlining a stacked bill of new(er) and noteworthy death metal bands. Yet, other than the grey hair, you could hardly differentiate the grizzled vets from the young bucks that preceded them. Nearly 40-years into their career, the Polish quartet played with the speed and ferocity of bands just releasing their debut demos. Sure, there was a distinct old-school vibe running through all their songs, but that homage to the past hardly caused the kind of stale delivery experienced by other elder statesman of the genre.
I’ll admit that I assumed the band’s setlist was primarily of tracks from their back catalog. Given the track record of OSDM bands in the back half of their careers, the songs felt a bit too refreshed and energetic for post-’90s releases.
Boy, was I was wrong.
Solitude of Madness is a half-hour of nonstop OSDM worship in the absolute best way possible. If you’ve ever wanted the spirit and creative fire of death metal’s golden age channeled through modern production and songwriting sensibilities, this is arguably the closest example you’ll find this year (at least). Founding member Piotr Wiwczarek (guitar, vocals) is once again joined by 2010s additions Spider on guitars, Hal on bass, and James Stewart (Bloodshot Dawn) on drums, and this collision of traditional and modern death metal ideals elevates this updated OSDM formula.
Stewart in particular plays a huge role in the album’s success. As Piotr and Spider unleash vintage riffs with a modern veneer, Stewart’s steady percussion provides the perfect backbone for every track. He alternates seamlessly between thrashy galloping and unhinged blasts, always elevating the mood to a new level of intensity.
His bandmates more than hold on their own atop it all and produce memorable songwriting in the process. If you want short, brutal bursts of OSDM bliss, look no further than “Despair” and “Stigma of Divinity.” Even songs like “Emptiness” and “Bones” offer a bit of mid-paced, rock-leaning flair. The album stretches across the entire OSDM spectrum, played in a way only a veteran act could manage.
Ara – Jurisprudence (tech death)
Astralborne – Eternity’s End (melodeath)
Cauldron Black Ram – Slaver (blackened death metal)
Centinex – Death in Pieces (death metal)
Devangelic – Ersetu (brutal death metal)
Kardashev – The Baring of Shadows (atmospheric deathcore, post-metal)
Protosequence – A Blunt Description of Something Obscene (tech death, brutal death metal)
Umbra Vitae – Shadow of Life (death metal, metalcore)
Witch Ward – Sacrificial Monolith (death metal, hardcore punk)
Xibalba – Años en infierno (death-doom, beatdown hardcore)