There are many cornerstone elements that congeal to make metal the incredible music it is. I think about the punishing drum work, guitar-based pyrotechnics, growled/screamed/wailed vocals, distorted tones, and aggressive themes that pervade some of metal’s most celebrated releases. But even this description, however generic it may be, is fraught with narrow-minded categorization. Clean vocals have just as essential a place in metal as Cannibal Corpse’s abrasive gyrations, while instrumental emphasis, aggression, and production varies wildly between subgenres and eras in metal’s storied history. It could be realistically posited that what makes metal, well, “metal”, is as varied as the millions worldwide who partake in its unholy vibrations.
But if you were to ask me, and only me, what makes metal the essential sequence of soundwaves it is, I would tell you it’s the riffs. All the riffs, in fact. Nearly every metal album that has stuck with me over the years is at some point chock full of memorable riffs that embed themselves in my brain. In this sense, it’s not difficult to understand why death metal in particular has become such an integral component of my metal playlists and those of many metalheads. If we were to use this criteria as a guide to quality metal, Indiana’s death metal newcomers Obscene have with their debut created an utterly essential record. Lovers of the riff, rejoice. You’ve found premium musical content.
Those enamored with the past decade’s love affair with old school death metal will find plenty to love in The Inhabitable Dark. There’s nary a moment on this record that doesn’t absolutely bleed quality riff writing, and this knack for hooking listeners in presents itself immediately with “Without Honor and Humanity”. Kicking off a record with an absolute banger of a track is always a recommended launch point for a death metal band, and Obscene take this mantra to heart with a composition that is as stark, filthy, and uncompromising as the record’s cover art suggests. It’s just under three minutes of guitar-based insanity, churning out riff after delicious riff as if the band were fed on nothing but a diet of Bolt Thrower, Obituary, and early Deicide since infancy.
It only gets better with “Bless the Giver of Oblivion”, which launches a full-on audio assault at the listener that also showcases the band’s adaptability within the style, throwing out some doomy Incantation vibes in the track’s middle section. The instrumental performances here are simply superb, with each member of the band operating at a level of efficiency and intensity that you’d be hard pressed to find equal to in this year’s death metal crop.
But lest you fear that Obscene are just peddling more of the same stuff you’ve heard Father Befouled release over the past few years, the band have a few unique elements to their sound that help them branch out from their peers. The most immediately noticeable is Kyle Shaw’s hardcore-infused vocals, which feel like a cross between Damian Herring of Horrendous and Cheri Musrasrik of Succumb, mixing raspy wails and a militant style of barks to great effect throughout. “All Innocence Burns Here” is the point in the record where the uniqueness of his delivery truly takes hold, and presents a possible make-or-break moment for listeners not won over by his vocals. But those who are willing to allow Shaw’s delivery to grow on them will continue to be bathed in some of the bloodiest riffs released this year.
“They Delight in Extinction” and “Black Hole of Calcutta” hold down the center of the album with two of its hardest hitting compositions, building a monolithic wall of death metal riffs that feels like it couldn’t be improved upon, only to be further crushed into oblivion by the album’s back section, which provides ample opportunity for these musicians to continue their ceaseless assault. The solo in “This Is He Who Kills” is reminiscent of Trey Azagthoth’s Morbid Angel wildness, while the album’s titanic closer and title track is a deft display of everything the band does well in a powerful six-and-a-half minutes. It’s certainly a sequence of tracks for the ages, and a thrilling statement of intent for a young band.
There are honestly so few things about this album to dislike that this part of the review feels a bit pointless, but if I were to lodge a single complaint, it would have to be a minor critique of the drum production here. As a preference, I prefer drum production in my death metal a bit more robust. While the drum performance by Brandon Howe is absolutely phenomenal, I do wish that his bass drum was given more prominence in the mix. But alas and alack, you can’t have it all, and the album does not unduly suffer from this production decision.
As a slave to the riff, I’m hard pressed to think of an album that has delivered harder hitting tracks than The Inhabitable Dark this year. It’s absolutely absurd that this is Obscene’s full-length debut, as their precision and chemistry as musicians and songwriters is undeniable. Midwest death metal has its fair share of fantastic bands, and Obscene shoot right to the upper echelon on their first try. If you are a fan of old school death metal, excellent riff writing, and superb instrumental performances, Obscene have delivered your 2020 savior. A fantastic debut from a band that I will be watching closely hopefully for many years to come.
The Inhabitable Dark is available now via Blood Harvest.