Like 2019 and 2018 before it, 2020 is A Year of Death Metal. Obviously death metal isn’t the only metal subgenre seeing great releases at the moment – a cursory look at our Best-Of lists from the past couple years or our Reviews section will prove that – but the overarching narrative of the past two years has been the indomitable, iron-fisted rise of death metal from the suppurating bowels of the Earth to the helm of the metal zeitgeist. It’s been incredible and humbling to witness: seeing bands as true to the genre’s ethos as Blood Incantation get a spotlight from NPR is objectively pretty fucking cool.
It’s also spawned some naysayers. There are a couple common lines of criticism: first, that these up-and-coming bands are just riding a wave of popularity while imitating the greats of the ’90s, and second, that a lot of the labels that are serving as launchpads for these bands – 20 Buck Spin and Maggot Stomp, especially – are just signing anyone with a certain sound with little regard for quality. It’s hard to meet these complaints head-on. For one, they aren’t always presented in good faith and often seem more like just whaling on whatever the big thing of the moment is than actual criticisms of the bevy of young lions dropping debuts. The first criticism is fairly easy to disprove; although there are certainly bands engaging in some grave-robbing here and there, by and large groups are pushing to evolve an ethos that fell by the wayside in the mid-to-late ‘90s as the fervor around death metal died out.
The second criticism, though, is a tough one, because there is, unfortunately, a ring of truth to it. California’s Maggot Stomp Records is the big one coming under fire at the moment for their predilection to “caveman death metal.” The label, responsible for spreading the word on groups like Frozen Soul and Sanguisugabogg, is often derided for a perceived monomaniacal devotion to a simplistic, one-trick, “hit-you-over-the-head-with-a-club” style of death metal. It’s not entirely true, of course, but there’s perhaps more veracity to it than most would care to admit.
It’s in this context that the signing of THÆTAS to Maggot Stomp for their debut album, Shrines to Absurdity, poses a healthy, double-fisted refutation to both of these criticisms. Self-described as “equal parts Defeated Sanity/Disgorge brutality, Gorguts-esque angular dissonance, 90s Suffocation, Death, Cynic technicality and NY attitude,” it would be hard to find a newly-minted death metal band further from the sound Maggot Stomp seems to only care about, and nigh impossible to find a band more poised on the cutting edge of where death metal ‘revivalism’ is headed.
It would seem THÆTAS couldn’t be just another death metal band even if they tried. Take, for instance, Shrines’ third track and first single, “Dearth;” it’s a punishing, labyrinthine maze of riffs that sounds the way a Dan Seagrave painting looks, twisted and punching outwards while entwined around some bizarre vortex of its own creation. Meaty power chords slam headfirst into barbed thickets of tremolo notes and pinch harmonics that resist any attempt to follow along. The instrumentation feels it’s always sitting on the edge of what’s possible, one overcorrection away from exploding at any given moment. Where the song does briefly slow down – once for a biting, angular groove, and once for a profoundly Gorguts-y flourish of clean-ish notes that rise from the crimson murk – it’s made all the more powerful and juddering by the constant salvo elsewhere. Although they aren’t the most similar sonically, it’s impossible to not be reminded of the hypertechnical sci-fi brutality of Wormed, who, like THÆTAS, perfectly understand that death metal is at its best when demonstrating the primal truth of Newton’s third law of motion.
Across Shrines, THÆTAS demonstrate a mastery of sonic haruspicy that lives up to the exciting list of names dropped in their bandcamp elevator pitch. Their most clear relative is the mighty Suffocation, which is obvious almost immediately upon pressing play, but there really are crystalline shards of a host of different bands spread throughout Shrines to Absurdity for the discerning ear to discover. Even at their most meat-and-potatoes brutal death metal, as on tracks like “Blood Distillery” and “Envy the Stillborn,” there is a clear deference to the slippery, wriggling stylings of the aforementioned Defeated Sanity. On the title track and the towering closer “Greenhaven,” THÆTAS integrate the ever-impressive bizarre atmosphere of Gorguts’ Obscura and From Wisdom to Hate in piecemeal moments that help these tracks ascend beyond the sinuous, flowing murk in which the rest of the album spends its time thrashing and flailing.
The THÆTAS playbook is a perfect summation of where death metal is headed at the moment. So many separate strands that exemplify the best of brutal-leaning death metal are woven together here into a sound that the group entirely owns. The key to genius in metal is to steal from enough different places that all the threads become inextricable; it’s clear THÆTAS understands this. Shrines to Absurdity is a gem from the depths, a powerful triumph for the riff-hungry who spend their days poring over the old tomes in search of the next great thing. In conclusion, only death metal is real.
Shrines to Absurdity is available now via Maggot Stomp.