Greetings, centurions. There’s too much quality death metal to discuss, so no time to talk. Pull up a bone throne, grab your libation of choice, and buckle up.
Ok, there’s a little time to talk, but it’s difficult to find words that either haven’t been said before or don’t feel incredibly obvious. Oh, the world’s on fire right now? You feel like the hat-wearing dog in the meme everyone loves to share? You just CAN’T EVEN? Cool. Same. Let’s move on.
Which brings me to a thought I’ve had recently, prompted by a discussion with a friend of mine about the fantastic new Xythlia album we’re highlighting this month. It’s tempting to describe every mildly pissed off album as “fitting for our time,” and I can’t really disagree. But as awful as the U.S. responses to COVID-19 and peaceful protests have been, the real issues brought into the spotlight have existed long before 2020: systematic racism, income inequality, inadequate healthcare coverage and access, and so on.
I’m not trying to belittle the need for an escape from an undeniably terrible period of our history. But death metal and its aggressive genre brethren have been loud voices against all manners of oppression for decades. That usually centers on a rejection of religion, but as the genre has grown, the genre’s conscience and topics bands are covering have as well. So while I understand the urge to find catharsis from our present moment in the cleansing fire of death metal, pay attention to the anger on display and remember: the issues drawing your favorite vocalist’s ire preceded 2020 and will last long after, as is the case with the issues that our current crisis have brought back into the spotlight.
In short, keep fighting. Keep demanding better. And stay angry. OUGH.
Cream of the Crop
Imperial Triumphant – Alphaville
As was the case with Vile Luxury, we had a spirited internal debate about the proper genre we should ascribe to Imperial Triumphant’s music. “Avant-garde blackened tech death” doesn’t exactly roll off the keyboard. I think you could make a case for their core sound being rooted in either black metal or death metal, though as you probably guessed, I think they fit more comfortably in the latter.
Sure, the trio’s music exudes the kind of all-encompassing sinister atmosphere ingrained in the black metal formula, and they’re clearly influenced by the dissonant black metal movement of the oughts. But in my view, their music is simply too crushing and downright heavy not to be classified as some of the weirdest death metal to surface from the underground since Gorguts rose to prominence.
But genres aren’t the most important thing to discuss when it comes to Alphaville. If you followed the blog in 2018, you’re well aware that we adored Vile Luxury, and wrote about it in every applicable column we have. The band first piqued my interest on Abyssal Gods (2015) with their aggressive yet off-kilter approach to dissonant, blackened death metal. Just a few years later, Vile Luxury saw the band elevate everything about their sound and couple their enhanced formula with prominent avant-garde metal elements. It was a release that, while excellent, also made feel like their next album was destined to fall short of what its predecessor had achieved.
Yet, right out of the gate, Alphaville proves that it indeed deserves to reign supreme above everything the band have done before. I hesitate to say Imperial Triumphant “improved” their sound, because I don’t think there was anything on Vile Luxury that truly needed fixing. But the band have certainly enhanced everything that made their renaissance a few years ago feel like such a revelation to metal fans of nearly every persuasion. As lazy at this might be to write, Alphaville truly is Vile Luxury, but better. From the musicianship to the songwriting, from the metal foundation to the avant-garde elements, Imperial Triumphant have elevated themselves beyond my lofty, seemingly unreasonable expectations.
If this was a proper review, I’d feel tempted to provide a track-by-track breakdown (as I nearly did with my review of Vile Luxury). But Jordan already did an excellent job with his review, and by securing an interview with the band to provide additional context to the writing process. So instead, I’ll focus on what I love about my favorite track, “Transmission to Mercury.”
In all honesty, this track shouldn’t work at all. It’s an unhinged bricolage of stalls that somehow coalesces into one of the best metal tracks I’ve heard all year. Jazzy piano lifted straight from a classic noir film opens the proceedings in a grandiose yet unsettling manner, before a trombone (yes, a goddamn trombone) finds its way into the track. With the death metal intensity that preceded this track, there’s a sense of dread and anticipation that amplifies the impact throughout.
Then, of course, the onslaught resumes, as the band bursts into a flurry of blast beats, dissonant riffing, and menacing death growls. It’s an intense affair, which is somehow made more insane by the return of the trombone midway through the track. Along with a chorus of vocals, the cacophony flows together impeccably for a rousing display of what avant-garde metal is capable of.
As the insanity reached a fever pitch and then subsided in a crash during my first listen, the scope and genius of Alphaville truly hit me. Imperial Triumphant are a truly fearless band intent on pushing the boundaries of their sound as far past the horizon as they can. There’s so much else I could have covered here, from the continuation of their dystopian metropolis themes to the impressive guest list. But that would prevent you from leaving this post and turning on the album for yourself, which you should do ASAP.
Best of the Rest
Aseitas – False Peace
As a music consumer constantly working through a seemingly interminable to-listen list, the length of a record matters a great deal to me. I only have so many hours in the day where I can listen to music, and I’ll be damned if I let some bloated 80-minute “opus” take up time that could be spent with two or three worthy records. The truth is I just don’t think musical statements typically need more than an hour to make their point. There are, however, exceptions to even the hardest and fastest of rules, and 2020 has presented me with a few records that have challenged my perception of the length-to-value correlation. These would be Neptunian Maximalism’s utterly wild debut Éons, Paysage d’Hiver’s snowbound black metal masterpiece Im Wald, and certainly not last or least in this category, Aseitas’s sophomore outing False Peace. While free jazz/avant garde insanity and atmospheric black metal lend themselves toward more extended run times, death metal typically does not. Which is what makes False Peace an anomaly of epic proportions for 2020. It’s intricately constructed, shockingly diverse, manically aggressive, and somehow justifies a 70-minute-plus runtime by never ceasing to be thoroughly interesting and entertaining. It’s a staggering feat of death metal mayhem and I can’t stop listening to it.
For those unfamiliar with this Portland collective, Aseitas peddle a unique death metal amalgamation that blends the mathy/skronky vibes of a Car Bomb or The Dillinger Escape Plan with the dread-filled death metal atmospherics of Ulcerate + some really sexy grooves. If that sounds like absolute death metal bliss to you, Aseitas have written your record of the year. Front-to-back, False Peace is teaming with good ideas executed to near-perfection. The album’s title and opening track lays down a foundation of dizzying instrumentation and almost industrial doom-like intensity. Imagine if The Body created a full-on experimental death metal bonanza and you’ll come close to capturing the sounds conjured here. It’s a wild, fierce introduction that opens up the album to at least a dozen possible sonic directions, with Aseitas opting toward a dissonant, technically majestic form of murky and vile death metal that incorporates elements of doom, groove, and progressive metal into an unforgettable package. Album single “Scalded” displays the majority of these traits masterfully in a blistering four minutes, even adding in a few cosmic death metal touches that smack of Blood Incantation or Ulthar. But for all its plundering of established and well-loved sounds in the death metal world, Aseitas somehow never sound like anyone other than themselves, melding their influences into something that sounds more like the future of death metal than a greatest hits compilation. The remainder of the record builds on the elements presented in these two tracks and magnifies and amplifies them in much more extended fashion, dropping absurdly long compositions without ever losing an ounce of their intensity or vision. It is, on all counts, a masterful display of prowess from a young band poised for greatness.
It isn’t very often that I can use terms like “the future of death metal” with a straight face, but False Peace makes a legitimate case for concocting a vanguard sound that could usher in a new era of thought in death metal composition. With their utterly spellbinding sophomore effort, I can confidently place Aseitas among the genre’s very best purveyors of audio violence, and I cannot wait to see where they take us next. Whether their next album is 30 minutes or three hours long, if the quality maintains itself at this level I’m on board the Aseitas express, ready to embark on whatever journey they choose to take me on. A fantastic release in every regard, and emphatically recommended.
Defeated Sanity – The Sanguinary Impetus
The tail end of 2020 is chock full of upcoming releases from legendary death metal or adjacent bands. Thinking of Incantation and Napalm Death bringing heat over the next few months gets me all kinds of hype (SPOILER ALERT: YOU SHOULD BE TOO, CUZ HOLY SHIT), but July kicked off the old-timers ball with yet another crushing release from Germany’s masters of technical and brutal goodness Defeated Sanity. As a certified death metal institution, Defeated Sanity certainly have nothing left to prove, with multiple classic records under their belt over a storied 20+ year career that includes a grand total of zero duds. But for a veteran band with a firmly cemented legacy among the genre’s most elite practitioners to release what could possibly be their most accomplished album yet is a marvel on an entirely different level. But that’s what we have with the band’s sixth (or seventh, depending on how you view their latest double release) record, The Sanguinary Impetus, which highlights a band in complete control of their established sound while pushing its boundaries with tasteful flourish and invigorating zeal.
For those expecting a drastic sea change in the band’s songwriting, The Sanguinary Impetus may present you with some disappointment. This is Defeated Sanity as we know and love them, but with a crisper, cleaner approach to their now standardized chaos. Thanks to absolutely masterful production and recording work through the illimitable Colin Marston, Defeated Sanity have never sounded better. This is the audiophile’s brutal death metal wet dream, with each snare blast, cymbal crash, and relentlessly speedy riff coming through with a crystal clarity that you rarely see in this type of music. Similar to Portal’s Ion from a few years back, The Sanguinary Impetus feels like an infinitely complex and brutal band drawing back the curtain to reveal with disturbing detail the guts that make their music the transfixing combination of notes that it is. Each of these tracks is as intricate and complex as any the band has yet written, but made all the more dizzying and dazzling due to the fantastic work behind the boards. Yet all this audio wizardry would be for naught if the band weren’t still writing great songs, and in this regard The Sanguinary Impetus stands among the finest achievements of the band’s career. While not especially innovative, the band know exactly who they are and where they excel, and hit all of those notes with expert precision. “Propelled Into Sacrilege” and “Dislimbing the Ostracized” in particular stand tall as some of the band’s best material to date, with the remainder of the record not far behind in terms of memorability and quality.
It’s always a delight when one of the old timers strikes gold, and we can happily count The Sanguinary Impetus as one of those increasingly rarer instances. Rather than just another notch in an already decorated belt, Defeated Sanity’s latest feels vital and authentic, building upon an already legendary discography with an emboldened sense of clarity and efficiency. It’s one of my favorite releases in this genre in some time, and most certainly one of the best of the year.
Question – Reflections of the Void
Death metal right now feels like a genre that is beyond time and space, perhaps because it is: the internet has caused something of a collective book-tossing on the idea of local scenes, driven by the equal access that everyone has all the time to everything from the beloved greats of the genre to the stuff only the most obscurantist and fanatical of tape-trading devotees could care about. Bands like Cartilage and Funebre can play just as much of a role in shaping a fledgling group’s sound as Entombed or Morbid Angel.
Santiago De Querétaro’s Question are, in this respect, a death metal band’s death metal band. There are impossibly small fragments of so much death metal history present in the group’s work that any specific comparison seems destined to be nothing more than a pale figment of the incandescent fractalia the Mexican quartet display. They’ve been chugging along in relative obscurity for a while now, and in their decade-length career thus far churned out three LPs and two EPs, with a pretty strong record of quality across the board. Reflections of the Void, though, is a different beast entirely from their previous output. This album is easily their best thus far. At the risk of sounding dramatic, this feels like the record that Question have been destined to make since their birth in 2010. It is leaps and bounds above not only their past output but a majority of everything else happening in the death metal scene right now, and similar to their Pacific Northwest brethren 2500 miles to the north Warp Chamber, what they’ve done feels like a synthesis of so many different strands of death metal that seem to be popping back up right now after long periods of dormancy.
Larger shards do emerge, though: there’s a clear lineage that can be traced back to the more bleak of Finnish death metal works a la Demigod or Convulse and the psychedelic wanderings of Midwestern greats Timeghoul. But Reflections is hardly burdened by the weight of the past; one listen to this record should confirm that it has its sights set on loftier ambitions than paltry replication of the odd. Reflections oozes atmosphere and drips with a warping, spiraling energy of pure malevolence, even as it feels completely terrestrial. The raw but parsable production helps immensely in this regard. There is never any doubt as to what the band is doing or to the fact that human beings are the conduit for this sound, but there are still so many moments that feel genuinely channeled from beyond in their genius and lucidity. Excellent chord choices and a flare for unconventional structuring help to keep the whole affair just beyond the ear’s ability to grasp, meaning that repeat listens become a welcome and essential component of enjoying Reflections for those who have even a passing interest in just what Question have to say.
Question have a knack for deflecting any solid description, but if there’s one group of words that can be easily applied to Reflections of the Void, it’s superlative adjectives. This is one of the best death metal records of 2020; there is an overwhelming amount of sheer brilliance constantly on display. If anyone is still of the mindset that modern death metal bands only have an interest in relitigating the past, Reflections of the Void is the ultimate curative to that paradigm. Death metal albums this timeless don’t come around often.
Xythlia – Immortality Through Quantum Suicide
I’ve already written about a thousand words about this incredible album, so I’ll keep it brief. Ashbringer member and talented music person Nick Stanger has with his first release under the Xythlia moniker unleashed an unholy hell on our unsuspecting ears. Immortality Through Quantum Suicide was a bolt from the sky that I could not have anticipated, and as such it’s one of the most surprising and thoroughly rewarding listens I’ve enjoyed this year. If you like your death techy and grindy, you may not find a better companion for your darkened days.
From the outset, Immortality Through Quantum Suicide shows no remorse and takes no prisoners. There’s nothing here but the purest form of sonic obliteration, and it’s exquisite in its singular vision and execution. The instrumentation and programming here is straight up bananas, with Stanger stacking riff upon manic riff with the alacrity of a thoroughly seasoned technical death metal architect, which one might not know or suspect from his work with the fantastic Ashbringer. “Death Unyielding” should give you just about all you need to hear to make a determination about whether this record is up your alley, but if you’re even moderately intrigued by what Stanger has to offer here the remainder of this record will blow your fucking head right off. “Ablation of Subconscious” alone is worth the journey, crescendoing into an unnervingly emotional finale that indicates a level of personal exorcism and investment that feels very non-traditional for the form. The exact opposite of robotic, Xythlia displays a bleeding heart that is as alive and vibrant as any I’ve heard in a record this intense.
Stop reading and just listen to it already. This is as alienating and uncompromising a death metal-adjacent record as I’ve heard in a good while, and those brave enough to dive into its violent depths will find a pool of limitless rage and instrumental/songwriting prowess that you won’t be able to shake. Highly recommended.
Bedsore – Hypnagogic Hallucinations
Lantern – Dimensions
Skeleton – Skeleton