Death’s Door. August. Let’s get it on.
I wish I had more time. Pretty much always. Mainly because I want to listen to more music, and have space to write about it. July was absolutely insane for death metal. Our infernal underlords hath blessed us richly with a bounty that ain’t no one got time to fully absorb. There are multiple records on this list that I’ve been chewing on for weeks that I wouldn’t be surprised to see show up on my AOTY list, and I think Scott would agree with that assessment. Death metal is back in full force baby and we’re all the way here for it.
This month, Scott is highlighting the largely unsung but actually completely fucking awesome Icelandic death metal scene (yes, you read that correctly) through the prism of Ophidian I’s titanically awesome Desolate. Which, if you haven’t heard it yet, you should change… immediately. It’s a great scene that is only recently starting to gain just a smidge of popular traction, and Scott’s here to provide your eager eyes and ears with both contemporary and semi-historical perspective on some of its seminal releases. We’ve got a whole host of great records to share with you on top of that, so enough dilly dallying. Let’s go.
Death metal forever.
The Dirge: A Sampler from the Icelandic Death Metal Scene
If you’ve followed our black metal coverage over the last few years, you know that Iceland has been an absolute hot bed for the genre. As we covered back in 2016 and in countless Kvlt Kolvmn posts, Icelandic black metal has a unique, alluring voice, defined by both a vastness and depth befitting the island}s gorgeous landscape.
So as I listened to Ophidian I’s excellent album Desolate this month, something occurred to me — where is all the excellent Icelandic death metal? Surely black metal isn’t the only subgenre that’s caught on in the land of fire and ice. Well, fear not! I sifted through Encyclopaedia Metallum’s Iceland archives to find the best Icelandic death metal fit for print. Hopefully you enjoy my findings as much as I enjoyed discovering them.
Cult of Lilith – Mara (2020)
Right off the bat, here’s a band from a supposedly “hidden” scene that we’ve covered multiple times on the blog. We premiered a track from their EP Arkanum back in 2016 and featured last year’s Mara in our October Death’s Door column. Whoops! In any case, I’m glad I checked out Mara now, because Cult of Lilith blend melodeath, tech death, and deathcore into one heavy, abrasive mix, adding some orchestral and symphonic flourishes for good measure.
Hush – Blackheart (2021)
Ok, now this is too much. I recommended this very album earlier this year and somehow missed the fact it said “one woman Brutal Death Metal project from Iceland” right in the Bandcamp description. I guess I was more attracted to the mission statement of making music “themed around anti sexism, anti racism and anti homophobia.” Nice. The music itself hearkens back to earlier melodeath-tinged deathcore from the 2000s, which is the exact kind of nostalgia trip I find myself looking for often.
Narthrall – Screaming from the Grave (2017)
It’s good to see Iceland getting in on the OSDM fun. When I stumbled upon Nathrall, I knew exactly what to expect, and boy did Screaming from the Grave deliver. This is a 45-minute romp through the graveyard, complete with demonic vocals and ripping, sinister riff. Imagine Incantation surfacing from their cave and howling at the moon and you’ll have a pretty clear image of what we’Re working with here.
Nexion – Seven Oracles (2020)
This feature is becoming less of a look at the underrated Iceladnci death metal scene and more of a display of my own incompetence. I distinctly remember Seven Oracles from last year and for some reason never got around to giving it a proper spin. Well, that was a mistake, because this is some excellent blackened death metal that features all the expansive traits of Iceland’s black metal scene. Nexion is a perfect bridge between the island’s death and black metal offerings, and I’ll be paying closer attention for their next release.
Vögel – Ómstríð (2019)
Just like their blackened counterparts, Vögel take a unique approach to their craft, in this case progressive death metal. Their sole release Ómstríð feels like it was created somewhere at the intersection of Cynic, Gojira, The Faceless, and Opeth. It offers the kind of spacey yet groovy tech death fans of these bands will enjoy, and hopefully we’ll hear some new material in the near future.
Zhrine – Unortheta (2016)
Not only did I forget Zhrine are from Iceland, I also forgot about them entirely until pulling together this feature. I’m not sure how that happened, considering their debut Unortheta is still one of the best entries in the post-death metal movement. Sure, you might be able to swing this under the black metal label, but I think it’s heavy enough to be considered a proper death metal release, very much in the vein of Ulcerate or Ceremony of Silence. However you label it, prepare for plenty of blasts and heavy tremolos surrounded by foreboding atmospheres.
Cream of the Crop
Ophidian I – Desolate
Now that you’ve presumably browsed my curation of Icelandic death metal bands, allow me to recommend the best display of the genre that the island has to offer. There are some albums that take a few tracks to truly gain their momentum, or those that require a few listens to truly let the band’s intentions permeate. Then there are albums like Desolate that explode with bombast and excellence from the jump. I don’t say this lightly — I’ll be shocked if another album unseats this as my favorite death metal release of the year.
Put simply, Ophidian I combine everything I love about death metal into one seamless, phenomenal package. Let’s just use last year as a benchmark. Take the sweeping melodies Countless Skies wrote on Glow, Beneath the Massacre’s insane collision of brutality and speed on Fearmonger, and the progressive stylings of Aronious on Perspicacity, then combine them all perfectly. That’s what awaits you on Desolate, as every track is a tour de force of melodic tech death that’s as captivating as it crushing.
All 10 tracks are worth your time, but you really only need to put on “Diamonds” to understand what Ophidian I are all about. The guitar flourishes, blistering percussion, and commanding vocals never cease throughout the entire track, and they all work in tandem toward even better ideas as the song progresses. What’s most striking about their music is how the aforementioned elements blend together. We’re not talking about a melodic intro leading into heavy blasts that gives way to a flashy guitar solo. The core songwriting leverages memorable melodies alongside blistering technicality, with inherent heaviness present all the while.
Beyond this, an underrated quality of Desolate is just how tight the runtime is. There’s not a single moment of filler on the album. Whereas some prog and tech death bands will milk an album up to or past the hour mark, Ophidian I simply lay down tech death excellence in just under 40 minutes. It’s effortless to spin again and again, and I certainly will be in 2021 and beyond.
Best of the Rest
At the Gates – The Nightmare of Being
It’s the age old story. Classic death metal band who peaked back around 1995 releases new record that supposedly “changes the game AGAIN!”. If I had a nickel for every time I read that kind of press release I’d have… at least a handful on nickels. But a new At the Gates album, regardless of how far removed the band is from their glory days, is something of an event that’s at minimum worth investigating. When you make albums as thoroughly awesome as The Red in the Sky is Ours and Slaughter of the Soul, it’s customary to give any new release at least a fair shake. Which is exactly what the band’s latest full-length release, The Nightmare of Being, received. Thankfully, the time invested was more amply rewarded than in previous outings, as this record may be their best since 1995.
The melodic side of At the Gates’ sound has always been one of the band’s key selling points, and here the band have reached a new zenith in regards to melodic texture in their songwriting. “The Paradox” exemplifies this emphasis well, juxtaposing the band’s speedier death metal delivery with a heaping helping of melody that is as confidently displayed as anything in the band’s catalog, creating a track that feels invigorating and propulsive. “Touched by the White Hands of Death” takes this motif and throws it back old school, with an opening that feel stripped directly from early 90s symphonic metal, chock full of synths and fantasy-esque sonic meanderings all before bursting into flames in a cascading death metal barrage. It’s moments like this that make The Nightmare of Being not only a better album than its most recent counterparts, but also just a thoroughly enjoyable album to listen to. Throw in an infinitely better production aesthetic than the mess found in To Drink from the Night Itself and you have yourself, surprisingly, a winner.
Is The Nightmare of Being going to further cement At the Gates’ legacy as one of the best and most arresting death metal bands of the early 90s? Most likely not. But it sure as hell won’t hurt their reputation either, which at this stage in their career is cause for celebration. The Nightmare of Being is above all things a completely enjoyable death metal release from a band that very obviously knows how to write solid death metal tunes and turns in a full album of them here. If you’ve enjoyed their previous work you’ll find plenty to appreciate here.
Drawn and Quartered – Congregation Pestilence
Seattle’s Drawn and Quartered have been creating death metal to beat a houseplant to death with since 1996, and over the past several years have showed no signs of slowing down. 2018’s The One Who Lurks was not only a notable album of that year, but a stand-out highlight of the band’s storied career. Which is saying something, as it would be fairly easy to argue that the band have not released a dud. Congregation Pestilence, their 8th full-length record, does nothing to dispel this notion. Front to back, those who enjoy their audio punishment merciless and filthy will find a new shrine to worship at in 2021. It doesn’t get much dirtier than this.
This may be a somewhat controversial opinion, but I’m a big fan of drums that sound like they’re about to jump out your living room speakers and take your lunch money. Unfathomable Ruination tend to peddle this brand of percussive brutality through an all-consuming snare sound that snaps your ankles, crackles your bones, and pops your blood vessels and Drawn and Quartered run on a similar dynamic with their drum production. Album opener “Death’s Disciple” pushes this aesthetic right in your face within the first few seconds, and I was immediately hooked. The balance between crusty old school vibage and a more progressive, early Immolation-esque approach to songwriting make for a fantastic combo that produces banger after solid banger as the album progresses. There isn’t a dud on the track list, and fans of old school, deeply punishing death metal will find plenty to love.
I’ve given this record several spins and I’ve yet to grow bored with it. Drawn and Quartered are doing a masterful job pulling out tricks from their very well-worn hat without making any of their tracks feel stale or overtly recycled. These are premium tracks by a premium band that I hope continues to garner newfound fans and attention. Bravo.
Intestinal Hex – The Exalted Chambers of Abhorrence
Sometimes you look at a band name and hope that the music sounds exactly like that name would suggest. When it comes to death metal, a band name like Intestinal Hex evokes some pretty, um… guttural feelings. When your name sounds like a bad night post-Taco Bell I would hope that the music is fairly gruesome. I’m pleased to report that the band’s debut album The Exalted Chambers of Abhorrence sounds like death metal shit out of a gastro-intestinally challenged and demon possessed troll, which in this instance is as high a compliment as I can imagine for this style of music. It’s punishing, dripping in filth, and heavy as an elephant turd. It’s good shit.
Fecal analogies (and album opening puke sounds) aside, there’s some thoroughly excellent death metal to be found splattered all over this record. There’s a dingy, grunge-slathered enormity to the proceedings here, which plod and bludgeon like every inch of a Fetid or Undergang record, but with the spacey solos of a Blood Incantation just after the largest bowl they’ve ever smoked. There’s a doom element too that reminds me of dISEMBOWELEMENT and Spectral Voice and I’m all the way here for it. It’s a great combo that keeps things unpredictable and me coming back for more and more. “Lakes of Vomit” is one of the best examples of this style on the record, melding choppy, disgusting riffs with those space-case solos in a near-perfect rancid stew of death metal grossness. It’s just the best.
I can’t recommend this record highly enough. There’s pretty much nothing wrong with it, especially when viewed through the prism of a debut outing. If you like your death metal absolutely reprehensible in sonic orientation, with knuckle dragging riffs and enough abject filth to paint a campground outhouse, look no further than The Exalted Chambers of Abhorrence. It’s monumentally good.
Sallow Moth – Stasis Cocoon
Mmmmmm. Death metal. Sometimes it’s good to just kick back with a record that pushes all the right buttons. A little traditional thuggery here, a sprinkle of progressive riffs there, and instrumental performances that bring the whole mess together in a (dis)harmonious manner. Give me that shit all day. Sallow Moth gave it to me hardcore in 2020 with their debut The Larval Hope, which I was very late in the game appreciating last year. Thankfully I’m more on top of my game in 2021, as Stasis Cocoon has been lifting my spirits since its release. It’s often a scary thing when a band follows up a good release so quickly with another outing, but here it seems to be of little concern as Stasis Cocoon outshines its predecessor in nearly every way.
If I had to describe Stasis Cocoon in one word, that word would be “balanced”. There’s a whole lot going on here, but Sallow Moth approach their songwriting with an approach that allows for each individual facet of their sound to have its moment in the sun. Whether that’s they psychedelic twinkling and doom-laden opening riffs of “Phantasmal Sphere of the Shadowmage Infiltrator” or the proggy, tech-infused “Birthing Pod, Chaos Orb, Mindslaver”, there’s enough time and space for each element to shine. To the band’s credit, this emphasis on particular sounds throughout these tracks never feels disjointed or out of place. As a unit, Stasis Cocoon has a definitive sonic identity which ties the whole disparate mess together in a way that never violates the unpredictability of these swings, making for a record that’s wild, weird, and organized in equal measure.
I haven’t heard another record like Stasis Cocoon this year, and I don’t think I will as the second half of the year progresses. There’s so much to like about how Sallow Moth approaches death metal, and I cannot wait for more (and soon). But for now we have two incredible records to enjoy until the band decides to bring us its next delicious offering. Until then, I’ll be spinning their small discography ad nauseam.
Tombstoner – Victims of Vile Torture
Last year, I was sitting in my home office finishing up some afternoon work when I decided to give Tombstoner’s first EP Descent to Madness a listen. After only a few moments of deeply enjoyable crunchy, grungy death metal with more than a little hardcore influence I hit the track “Filth Hole”. I stopped working and started banging my head relentlessly. Fifteen minutes of listening to this track on repeat and flailing my arms in the living room I decided that this was a band to watch. Their debut full-length record, Victims of Vile Torture, takes that feeling of adrenaline and spreads it like rancid butter over 40 minutes of riff-heavy death metal that is one of the most punishing, thoroughly enjoyable listens I’ve had this year.
For fans of Gatecreeper, Tomb Mold, and Swampbeast, if you haven’t heard this album yet you need to stop what you’re doing immediately and grab some headphones. Tombstoner are right up your alley, and there isn’t a dud of a track on the entire record. “Sledgehammer” sounds exactly like it should, with straightforward and punishing riffs that vacillate between breakdown-heavy sections of relentless head caving and more melodically-minded riffs that keep your interest from start to finish. “Fractured Souls” adds a doom element into the proceedings as well, building into frenzied moments like those found in “Armageddon” that display the band’s insane range within the genre. The performances and songwriting here are both superb, with a mix and production aesthetic that balances brutality and clarity perfectly. It’s the whole enchilada.
Tombstoner will be a name in death metal before you know it, mark my words. There’s an enormous appetite for the style and quality of death metal that these Staten Islanders are bringing to the table, and I’m hard pressed to think of a band that has brandied this level of sonic violence with such confidence and energy. There’s so much to love about this record, and I cannot wait to watch this band continue to grow in notoriety as word gets around regarding their stature. For an opening salvo, they absolutely crushed it. Shit slays. Highly recommended listening.