It’s hard to imagine that at one point, death metal as a genre was somewhat monolithic with a narrow field of view that has broadened incredibly over the genre’s 3+ decades of evolution. We’ve been enjoying a renaissance of 90’s style brutality in recent years that, for better or worse, has opened up a strangely anachronistic new path of evolution for the genre that bands like Tomb Mold and Blood Incantation have popularized that has left other stylistic tangents in the shadows still to be explored.
Atmospheric and dissonant death metal is another significant development that has emerged with its own set of defining aesthetics that began to establish itself ahead of and in parallel to the nu-OSDM wave, and can be traced back to Gorguts up through Portal and Ulcerate, to more recent bearers in Wake. It’s within this specific lineage that we find Denver’s Noctambulist, who for their sophomore album (their first with Willowtip) imbues the spacious and introspective corners of the genre with black metal and psychedelic influences that are idiosyncratic and specific to themselves.
//READ MORE: The Anatomy Of: Noctambulist
Black metal influence is nothing new for this micro-genre; Deathspell Omega are a key influence in the sound, after all. Wake, who dropped their defining album Devouring Ruin just last year, boasted a crust-like tinge of darkness within their post-death onslaught. Ulcerate have had a blackened edge to them since their inception, albeit utilized in more subtle ways. Noctambulist’s occupation of blackened death metal feels modern contemporary, more sonically and rhythmically substantial than the typical sinewy take on murk chords and blastbeats.
The Barren Form is also frequently meditative, and while it feels counterintuitive to use the word “restraint” when talking about such an extreme genre as blackened death metal, the group does make a conscious decision to set up camp and explore their sonic spaces. Guitars often swarm in cacophony between intense and technical drumming and vocalist S.M.’s varied use of snarling screams and bellowed roars, but a meaningful progression or moment of reflection isn’t far behind.
Take for example “Infetisimal,” which opens with an intense battery of musical ideas that douses and pummels, only to provide a false reprieve before applying more tension until the strings ultimately snap in the song’s final third, where the song drops out to a psychedelic if not anxious tribal passage that sits almost uncomfortably long. Later on, “Engulfed” would pull a similar trick by putting a cap on a six-minute barrage of expertly crafted riff-craft with two minutes of cavernous drones and distant screams. The track is also a shining example of the album’s exceptional bass performances that value the instrument as a separate entity from the guitars; a rarity in the genre.
Likewise, “Depletion” is another standout track that takes inspiration from iconic Ulcerate tracks like “Dead Oceans,” which sees the band utilizing sparse instrumentation and intricate drumming in order to create a sense of depth and dynamic to an otherwise dense soundscape. The interplay between overwhelmingly oppressive extreme metal and low-key soundscapes is a formula that Noctambulist does very well. That push and pull — the building of tension until the songs themselves seem to succumb to exhaustion — is a key element to what makes The Barren Form so interesting.
The Barren Form is packed with some substantial heft that helps to contribute some much-needed inspiration to a slowly growing subgenre of death metal. It’s absolutely vicious, with a depth of vulnerability through expressions of depression, anxiety, and grief lurking within. Noctambulist gives respect to atmosphere and technique enough to satisfy without getting lost in the weeds or attempting to emulate the more avant-garde reaches of the genre like Ad Nauseam or Imperial Triumphant. They’re carving their own path of explosive violence and meditative introspection, and they’re an immensely valuable (relatively) new voice in the genre worthy of attention.