Welcome back, Hellions. My name is Jonathan, and I love death metal.
Hark! Doth Captain Obvious speak once more? I mean… yeah. The above shouldn’t be a surprise to anyone. Scott, myself, and the gang have been writing this column for years now. We’ve put a lot of hours into bringing you (what we hope is) interesting and quality content, so it should go without saying that, of course, we’re pretty big fans.
But do you ever have those moments where your love for something gets reignited suddenly? Where what was once a latent, almost passive enjoyment becomes reinvigorated like it was the first time you’d experienced it? That’s what happened to me this month. I’ve always loved death metal, but giving the releases this month several careful listens has set my heart and mind once more aflame for the goriest, most brutal, most violent, most disgusting genre of music on the earth or any other planet. This is glorious music. It’s vile, repulsive, and subversive music. It’s a world to get completely lost in, to scare the car next to you with, and to feel that pulse in your chest that lets you know that you are, indeed, still alive. It’s death metal, baby, and thing’s are good.
This is, in my mind, one of the richest months for content that we’ve seen in a while. The releases here are multi-faceted, technically excellent, deeply interesting and divisive. We wouldn’t have it any other way. Feast your eyes and ears on the nastiness and despair. As always, feel free to sound off on your own picks and perspectives. Thanks for reading. You’re pretty great.
Death metal forever.
The Dirge & Death’s Vault // Phrenelith – Desolate Endscape (2017)
I know, I know — I’m pulling this one from a pretty shallow grave. Desolate Endscape may have just dropped four years ago, but I only now rectified my initial oversight of Phrenelith and their monstrous full-length debut. My local record store had a random treasure trove of affordable contemporary death metal albums the other day, and I jumped on the opportunity (shoutout to Desolate Shrine and Father Befouled, too). In some ways, discovering Desolate Endscape in 2021 is ideal timing; Phrenelith are overdue to release their sophomore album, just as I’m at peak anxiety for new material from them.
Honestly, what I love most about Desolate Endscape is how Phrenelith essentially serve up a helping of “agnostic Nile.” That might seem like an odd comparison, given how Nile’s Egyptian affinity is so closely tied to their sound. But to me, Desolate Endscape delivers that specific blend of atmosphere, brutality, and technical chops that’s often second fiddle when we talk about Nile. Just listen to the opening moments of “Deluge of Ashes” — heavy, triumphant riffs stomping over pummeling blasts, eventually shifting into sinister tremolos and pounding double bass rolls. Granted, Phrenelith’s take on this style is noticeably more cavernous, and the lack of any Egyptian embellishment allows the actuall death metal to flourish unimpeded.
Beyond this, what impressed me most about Desolate Endscape is how comfortable the band was writing songs without vocals. Of course, this includes the instrumental title track, which proves they’re highly adept at pulling off some funereal, death-doom vibes. But beyond that, Phrenelith know how to carry the non-vocal moments within songs. I may not expect bands to growl and screech throughout every death metal track, but it was noticeable to me how Phrenelith maintained the continuity of the album through extended passages between oughs.
Again, saying this was unearthed from a “vault” would be an exaggeration. But beyond the fact Desolate Endscape was an excellent discovery, it did make me consider the process of an album becoming a death metal classic — which brings us to the “Dirge” portion of our proceedings.
I’m not necessarily saying Desolate Endscape will make its way into the genre canon, but how would I go about making that argument? It’s currently one of the top five rated death metal albums of 2017 on Rate Your Music, and it even cracks the top 50 of the decade. That said, it didn’t make the same lists as compiled by Decibel, the modern standard bearer for extreme metal with a less than stellar track record with death metal.
So…who’s right? I’d argue it falls somewhere in the middle; journalists serve as both tastemakers for and observers of their audience. My favorite example of this in action is about as unmetal as you can get. When Daft Punk first released Discovery 20 years ago,
Rolling Stone for millennials Pitchfork gave the future French house classic a 6.4, accompanied by a review that dubbed it a grotesque “Frankenbaby” of prog and disco. Yet, fast forward to 2009, and Pitchfork had a stark change of tune, naming Discovery the third-best album of the 2000s that “[rewrote] electronic pop’s pleasure principles.”
What happened? It could be that Pitchfork’s staff had a genuine change of heart of epic proportions…OR, maybe they didn’t expect the album to feature some of the most popular, enduring dance songs of the 2000s and decided to pivot from their initial reaction. Granted, the latter argument is an unprovable thesis, but I hope I’ve made my point. We collectively agree albums are classics; it’s not a matter of music outlets deciding on our behalf or the Billboard charts alone establishing what music matter long term.
This is especially true for death metal, considering the limited resources on both sides of that equation. There are so few outlets covering the genre (at least compared to the larger universe of metal journalism), and we haven’t seen (nor likely will see) the Sunbather effect kick in for a death metal band. That’s why we run this column, and why we write pieces like the Decibel editorial I linked above. As fans, we need to actively preserve the genre we love and ensure it constantly reinvents itself. That doesn’t mean dubbing every album like Desolate Endscape a classic the moment it hits streaming platforms. But it does mean we should constantly refine our palate to discern which releases are worth celebrating, and which are holding the genre back.
Cream of the Crop
Ænigmatum – Deconsecrate (progressive death metal, tech death)
Modern tech death has trained our brains in specific ways. This isn’t an anti-trigger rant; I love the tight precision of wired up drumset firing on all cylinders. No, I’m talking about the perception that tech death and the proggy side of the genre always have to exhibit a certain level of seemingly unattainable speed and technicality. In some ways that represents the natural progression of the genre. Like any style of music, the newest wave of bands is always hellbent on improving upon what came before. That can be limiting for a genre that’s defined by its technical proficiency. Without naming names, we’re all aware of bands who relied on studio trickery to achieve a certain level of technicality, and/or conflated their musicianship with good songwriting.
I say all this as a means of summing up my own initial biases as I listened to Deconsecrate for the first time. Ænigmatum offer up traditional proggy tech death with a modern twist, à la Pestilence and Sinister meeting the likes of Decrepit Birth. And like those bands, Ænigmatum doesn’t look at BPM like a stat or try to cram as many notes as possible in a short span. And you know what? It’s refreshing as hell. There are lesser bands who wouldn’t have the guts to pause the pummeling for a track like “Fracturing Proclivity,” which closes with a proggy, off-kilter journey that only gets better with each subsequent listen.
And that’s what truly makes Deconsecrate such a highlight from the genre for 2021. Around every corner, Ænigmatum offer you something better than you expected. You want more blasts? About a an intricate drum pattern around a sick bass lick instead. Oh, you’re in the mood for a massive, cheesy solo? Let’s write a hyper-eclectic guitar lead that’s equal parts melodic, heavy, and technical. Every time I put the album on, I felt like I was simultaneously appreciating a refreshed take on classic tech death mixed with the greatest hits from the genre’s contemporary offerings. In short, Ænigmatum didn’t have time to worry about a sophomore slump; they were too busy writing one of the best death metal releases of the year.
Best of the Rest
Diskord – Degenerations (experimental/progressive death metal)
Death metal’s penchant for weird, funky, discordant song structures has been a thing arguably from the very beginning. Fans of Demilich, Cynic, and Atheist can certainly attest to the outsized influence that the sounds occupying the early fringes of death metal have had on the genre’s overall evolution, and whether or not you find yourself attracted to these sounds their impact is undeniable. Diskord, joining this sonic fray at an unfortunately bleak time in the genre’s history, are often overlooked in the long list of influential progressively-minded death metal bands, which is an absolute shame. Their work, starting in full-length effect with 2007’s excellent Doomscapes, has been as consistent in quality as it has been intentionally erratic in execution. These guys are all over the sonic field, bringing in a bass-heavy funk that smacks of Gorguts while incorporating sinuous, slithery riff work reminiscent of their above-mentioned Finnish counterparts. It’s a brilliant combo of sounds that maintains a spirit of unpredictability without sacrificing the core death metal components that genre aficionados crave. Those who’ve followed their relatively obscure trajectory will find just as much to love in their stellar third full-length record Degenerations. For those new to the game, rejoice. The advent of a new death metal favorite is at hand.
It’s pretty difficult to look at Degenerations from any artistic angle and not be impressed by the band’s fundamentally superb execution. The mixing and mastering, handled by the evergreen master of form Colin Marston, is pitch perfect, letting each instrument in this album’s ever-shifting sonic universe have its day in the sun without ever feeling jumbled or muted. It’s as clear a production aesthetic you will find in this type of death metal, and Marston’s unimpeachable record behind the boards continues unabated. But as I am wont to remind readers, there’s little value in fantastic production if the songs fail to capitalize on it. Thankfully, Diskord takes advantage of an excellent production team with a uniformly robust collection of compositions that seize every opportunity to impress with gusto. Damn, this album fucking slaps. Crooked, off-kilter songwriting mixes with brilliant musicianship in a manner that reminds me of a far more accessible Ad Nauseam, dropping the excessive trappings for a style that isn’t afraid to take its time unfurling its riches. The jazzy opening of “The Endless Spiral” melds into some thoroughly intense progressive jamming, replete with moments of effective chugitude and avant-garde asides. “Dirigiste Radio Hit” mixes death-doom aesthetics with a discordant edge that engenders feelings of appropriate queasiness. Standout “Clawing at the Fabric of Space” holds to its title by throwing an immaculately executed interstellar jam that reminds me of Blood Incantation and Tomb Mold gone even more insane. It’s a brilliant example of the band’s ability to marry style, impeccable and unpredictable songwriting, and outstanding musicianship into a seamless, impeccably produced whole. Start-to-finish, this thing slays.
I don’t have anything bad to say about this record. It’s an absolute banger through and through, and without question one of my absolute favorites of the year. Transcending Obscurity has a reputation for releasing excellent records from around the globe, and this may be their most potent of 2021. Diskord may have missed the early train of this kind of progressive death metal, but they are carrying the torch with enough energy to keep the flame ignited for a long time to come. Utterly excellent and deeply strange death metal that I cannot recommend highly enough.
Headshrinker – Callous Indifference (dissonant/progressive death-doom metal)
Denver’s death metal scene has been a vibrant one for quite some time, and as a native of the Mile High City it feels good to be able to highlight another haymaker of a debut stemming from its weed-tinged streets. Headshrinker are a menace to society, coming out of nowhere with a stripped back beast of a record that packs an insanely violent punch. Callous Indifference is a brutalizing, nuanced piece of work from a band that will undoubtedly continue to make its own powerful waves in an already densely populated scene.
Rather than holding to the spicier, proggy vibes of many of the cities more established acts, Headshrinker opt to blast faces off of skulls right out the gate with “The Burn of Indifference”. Unleashing full hell with a production and songwriting style that reminds me of Swedish masters of audio violence Mylingar, Headshrinker burst from the gate unleashing a pure sonic attack that is disorienting in its ferocity. The sound the band peddles throughout their debut is menacing as all hell, with tracks like “Wretched Soul” and “Suffocating Tomb” creating a blackened onslaught for the ages. If the band had stuck with this motif throughout, Callous Indifference would still be one helluva record. But it’s their unpredictable trips down a more measured, esoteric path that help the record stick out as unique and worthy of repeat spins. “Lost To This Insomnia” is a sterling example of their ability to bring heat within the confines of a much woozier, psych-heavy composition, lending the record a multi-faceted texture that helps it reach far beyond the confines of meat grinder death metal. “Haunted By Your Reflection” stretches even further into genre-bending territory, helming closer to the psychedelic death-doom trappings of Spectral Voice or Hooded Menace. It’s a glorious blend of sounds that reaches peak intensity and creativity in finale “No Lineage Shall Follow”, which stuns with its melodic underpinnings and thoroughly fantastic instrumental execution, taking advantage of every moment to create a sense of awe and dread that caps the record brilliantly.
There was a moment while writing this blurb that I took my hands off the keyboard, sat back and just let the enjoyment of what I was hearing wash over me. Those are moments worth treasuring, and I have no trepidation asserting Headshrinker as one of the brightest spots coming out of the Denver death metal scene in years. This record is truly magnificent from start-to-finish, and I cannot wait to see how the band’s career develops. Count me an early and vocal fan, and here’s hoping you experience as much malevolent glee as I did throughout multiple, worthy spins.
Our Place of Worship Is Silence – Disavowed, and Left Hopeless (dissonant/blackened death metal)
Death metal is a deeply emotive genre. Outsiders may hear nothing but a cavalcade of incessant, ugly noise, but for those inoculated to its initial rush of sonic madness can attest to its ability to engender emotional responses ranging from euphoric joy to abject rage. It’s as diverse a genre as you will find in the music world. But of all the emotional range replete within the genre, if one needed a dictionary definition of “sonic hopelessness”, Our Place of Worship Is Silence would most certainly be pictured beside it. Over the course of two fantastic, miserable records, the band have positioned themselves as unapologetic arbiters of expert, tunneling nihilism, dialed in an a sound that uses discordant blackened death metal as a gateway to existential nightmares that will haunt well after the music has subsided. Their third, immensely powerful record Disavowed, and Left Hopeless is a continuation of their densely chaotic MO, and arguably their best and most effective effort to date.
If you’re familiar with the band’s established sound, Disavowed will immediately pull you back into the misery you already know. “The Conspiracy Against Cruelty” is a relentless, vicious opening that re-establishes the band’s reputation as peddlers of audio insanity, bludgeoning listeners with an off-kilter brutality that feels like a distilled, more focused version of their previous work. The record as a whole holds to this aesthetic, bridging their past work into a new record that bleeds even more insanity out of their already tried-and-true formula. That isn’t to say that the record feels overtly familiar. To the contrary, “Mdłości II” is a deeply melodic triumph for the band, raising some expert songwriting chops above their blasting rhythm section without ever losing that traditional sense of snarling animosity. The band utilize space, texture, and moments of moderately paced sonic violence to scintillating effect throughout the record, with the second half of “From the Noisome Pestilence” serving as another excellent example of the band’s maturation as songwriters and performers. But OPoWIS still maintain their most effective and crushing appetites even in the more moderated moments, with finale “The Scourge” tying the whole thing together in a blood-spattered bow that should satisfy fans old and new alike.
OPoWIS are an absolute behemoth of a band that have stayed remarkably consistent in their style without sacrificing a sense of nuance with each new recording. Disavowed is their most complete offering to date, highlighting the band’s established strengths while providing hints at the path forward. Very far from a disappointment, Disavowed showcases a band at the peak of their powers, and is a must listen for fans of blackened death mixed with a heavy dose of despair. Essential listening.
Oxygen Destroyer – Sinister Monstrosities Spawned By the Unfathomable Ignorance of Humankind (old school death metal/thrash)
If there were ever a soundtrack to the destruction of a large city caused by Kaiju, Oxygen Destroyer have made it. Mixing old school death metal with an epic scope that hits with the immediacy of a hammer and the force of atomic breath, the band have created a thematic niche for themselves that is as energizing as it is pulverizing. Hans Zimmer my ass. Get ‘em on the phone, Paramount. These boys are cooking with gas. Their debut was a fire starter of epic proportions, and their follow-up effort Sinister Monstrosities Spawned By the Unfathomable Ignorance of Humankind is another knock-out punch to the face.
Fans of the classic death metal warblings of Morbid Angel and the riff-heavy explorations of Bolt Thrower (with more than a hint of unhinged Slayer-style thrash thrown in for good measure) will find plenty to love here. This is an audio battery of the highest order, sending wave after vicious wave of death metal at your face with relentless, break-neck ferocity. Openers “Merciless Embodiment of Everlasting Death” and “Possessing the Putrified Remnants of the Unholy God Incarnate” are titanic in both sound execution, filled to the brim with memorable riffs and ghastly solos that achieve their intended purpose of audio obliteration. But there’s a maturation to the band’s established sound that carries the record to heights not reached by its predecessor. The usage of melody here is stark and deeply effective, helping the barrage of riffs feel more meaningful and nuanced. “Slaughtering the Guardian Monsters” and finale “Their Reign Has Begun” provide evidence to the above, creating legitimate hooks to latch onto throughout the cascade of menacing old school death metal riffing. The tasteful, deeply enjoyable use of film samples also add a great deal of enjoyment to the record, engendering a deeply cinematic quality throughout that adds to the storytelling element of the album’s Kaiju obsession. It takes essentially everything that made the first record great and amplifies it to even greater effect.
If you’re a fan of classic Godzilla and Kaiju-related films, Oxygen Destroyer may just be your new favorite band. If you love old school death metal unafraid to transcend the bounds of the genre’s tradition, you’ll find just as much to love. Ascending from the deep with all the magnitude and indifference to human life of a villainous interdimensional lizard, Sinister Monstrosities is a beast well worth being repeatedly obliterated by.
Qrixkuor – Poison Palinopsia (progressive/experimental death metal)
Some of the best, most affecting albums I’ve ever heard didn’t feel that way when I first heard them. We may refer to such records as “growers”, putting their hooks in us over an expansive period of time. After two or three spins, we may start noticing the nuances, the details of import, that we missed first time around. This could be due to our own moods on first listen, or simply the trajectory of our own musical journeys not aligning with a particular band’s aesthetic. It could also be that there’s just so much to digest that we had a hard time wrapping our heads around what exactly is happening within a record. The last of these feels accurate to my experience with Qrixkuor’s stunning, epic, batshit sophomore full-length behemoth Poison Palinopsia. It’s also an example of how giving a record time to percolate often brings forth some of its most memorable and impactful traits, because around round three of my listening experience with Poison Palinopsia my head exploded. I still haven’t found all the pieces.
Consisting of two tracks and clocking in at nearly 50 minutes in length, Poison Palinopsia can be a lot to digest. It’s the type of record that requires complete and undivided attention as it unfurls its mysteries, and those unwilling or unable to give it that time may find themselves lost in its labyrinthine complexities. But given time to sink in, there’s little about this record that isn’t utterly exceptional. The songwriting here is methodical and unhinged, blending progressive death metal with discordant melodies that verge on insanity, flowing with a seemingly unending propulsion that’s both immediate and epic in scope. The performances are uniformly fantastic, especially as these tracks progress, blending styles with a precision and maniacal glee that sticks out like a sore thumb.
Opener “Serpentine Susurrus – Mother’s Abomination” is an absolute masterclass of tone, variety, and consistency, tying each unique section of the track together with a central motif that will get stuck in your head for days after listening. It’s the type of songwriting that is very difficult to achieve, and Qrixkuor possess that gift in spades. Far from erratic, the evolutions this track undertakes are effective and deeply memorable, including enough intensity to satisfy even the most die hard death metal fan while holding to a spirit of adventurous that should appease fans of more progressive fare. And once you’re in their clutches, “Recrudescent Malevolance – Mother’s Illumination” hits you with the synths and keys before ascending into an awe inspiring death spiral that’s among the most truly remarkable things I’ve heard this year in any genre.
I’ve rarely been this glad that I gave a record space to grow. Not only is Poison Palinopsia well worth the investment of time it takes to unpack its fiendish delights, but is by all accounts one of the most ambitious, complex, and deeply satisfying listens I’ve had in 2021. I’ve found myself revisiting this record again and again, attempting to further discover its riches. This is an album that I genuinely believe will become more and more revered with the passage of time, and I cannot get enough of it. So find a dark room, grab your best pair of headphones, and let Qrixkuor slowly and deliberately send you to hell. An absolute gobsmacker of a record.
Some Dead Bodies – Monolith (old school death metal)
“So what should we call ourselves?”
“I don’t know, how about ‘Some Dead Bodies,’ or something, lol?”
“Wait, no, I was just jok…”
“IT HAS BEEN SEALED WITH BLOOD.”
Jokes aside, Monolith is some OSDM goodness that feels like caverncore without the cave. Usually when you hear this style of songwriting, it sounds like the equivalent of a xeroxed pentagram drenched in goats blood. What I found so refreshing about the songs on Monolith is that I could…well, hear them. Clearly. Now, as the stewards of a death metal column, I obviously love a good ol’ fashioned romp through grimy death metal drudgery. But sometimes I can’t help but feel like bands use a certain production style and aesthetic and then rest their laurels when it coms to songwriting. While Monolith certainly has a cover that fits the current death metal scene, it’s track list trades in slopping through the mud for the crunch and bite of bones snapping underfoot. It’s a rip roaring good time that you won’t have to strain your ears and adjust your volume to hear properly.