Welcome once more unto Death’s Door. It’s been an insane month. It’s late, I’m exhausted, and very thankful for good death metal to keep my weary brain company. I’ll be brief: Death metal was good to us this month. There isn’t a smorgasbord of records here due to the insanity-inducing busy-ness of the month, but there are some certified BANGERS below and you should give them a listen if you haven’t already.
Let us know what records you’ve been digging on Facebook. Stay healthy, safe, and well. Death metal forever.
Cream of the Crop
Sermon of Flames – I Have Seen The Light, And It Was Repulsive (brutal death metal)
To be considered a great musical year, a year must have at least one album that makes you laugh out of sheer heaviness. It also needs at least one album that makes you scratch your head and go “huh?” Well, luckily for 2021, Sermon of Flames have decided to release an album that will make you do both. One part extremely heavy death metal and one part abrasive noise catastrophe, I Have Seen The Light, And It Was Repulsive is for those who like their death metal to go fast and to go with the distinct intent of blasting your eardrums to shreds. Metaphorically, of course; remember to protect your hearing!
Digging deeper into what makes the album tick, we can approach the first part of the equation first. The riffs on the album are of the massively groovy persuasion, oscillating between Morbid Angel like monstrosity, to crossover influenced, electric saw mimicking assaults of sound. The drums follow suite, extremely present in the mix alongside the thick, momentous bass, and hellbent on supporting the guitars with a prominent and lacerating groove section. Finally, the vocals are of the guttural sort, moving between a highly abrasive sort of scream and a lower, more stomach-centered bellow that shakes the bones loose in your head. The end result has some “skronk” to it, perhaps drawing further comparisons to bands like Pyrrhon, albeit a tad less experimental and out there but all the more punishing for it.
Which brings us to the many noise elements found throughout the album. It starts with the static which accompanies the death throes of “Cauldrons of Boiling Piss”, the album’s second track. For a few dozen seconds, the static noise seems to wrap around the guitars and deliver the instruments you, distorted. Then, after an outro where the static rules supreme, a screeching sound like metal dying in some industrial compressor assaults you. Here, it is not accompanying the music in any way, simply aggravating the aural assault of the music even more.
Both of these modes return further down the album, noise erupting from your speakers at unforeseen junctures to turn what’s already a punishing release even more harrowing. The death metal on I Have Seen The Light, And It Was Repulsive would already have placed the album high on the list of heavy releases of 2021 but the unpredictable bouts of system breakdown in the form of static, feedback, screeches, and a whole lot of other noise elements (listen to “G.O.D” for many of those “other” elements) adds to it another edge that we never knew we needed. As in, a saw blade’s edge or the edge of a knife as it plunges towards you.
Best of the Rest
Rivers of Nihil – The Work (progressive death metal)
It’s hard to find an album released over the past few years that blew the roof off of a band’s career quite like Where Owls Know My Name. Replete with saxophone and a host of effectively progressive death metal elements, that record saw Rivers of Nihil move from respected but lesser known death metal entities to a household name, landing plenty of year-end accolades and frothing its fanbase’s anticipation for future releases. Enter 2021 and the band have unleashed upon an expectant world The Work, a follow-up thoroughly drenched in impossibly high expectations. More than perhaps any band this year, RoN have reached the brick wall of hype that almost no band can effectively scale. So, refreshingly, they don’t try. The Work is another adventurous turn for a band that seems completely unwilling to settle down, with the result of being one of the band’s best and most immediately divisive offerings.
Right off the bat, fans of the band’s more progressive and softer elements will be met with just about everything they love in “The Tower (Theme from ‘The Work’)”. Pulling in an almost Katatonia mixed with White Ward vibe, the band mix gentle synths, sax, and clean vocals with an eventual burst of metallic rage that sets the tone for the album’s epic scale brilliantly. Epic is the operative word here, as The Work as a whole fills in as an almost cinematic sequence of compositions that rarely fail to shoot for the most expansive sonic territory possible. “Dreaming Black Clockwork” builds on the foundation built by “The Tower” by going even harder for that epic, progressive, woozy vibe that features vicious chugging, a warbly, watery middle section that feels reminiscent of Oranssi Pazuzu’s latest record, and enough tonal shifts to fill a lesser record. It’s RoN operating at their most daring and dazzling, and those who aren’t a fan of the band’s work in this vein should probably just call it quits at this juncture. It only gets more proggy from here.
With the sheer amount of tonal, tempo, and stylistic changes included on The Work, on paper it wouldn’t be inaccurate to assume the record would end up being a hot mess. There’s a world where you could certainly make that argument. But what keeps The Work cleanly in the black for me is the band’s complete conviction in the music they’re creating and their relentless pursuit of that vision. Far more often than not the band’s decisions feel earned and appropriate, whether they’re channeling Pink Floyd or the annals of melodic death metal, which is due in large part to the band’s continued evolution as songwriters and musicians. Whether meandering through mid-tempo, emotive compositions like the Deafheaven-y “Wait” or hitting listeners square in the face with bruisers like “MORE?”, The Work displays a band in complete control of their sound and loving every moment of it. The musicianship is also exquisite throughout, moving with equal ferocity and restraint, allowing each track to feel distinctly its own. The band excels most gloriously in their more grandiose moments like “Clean”, “The Void from Which No Sounds Escapes”, and “Episode”, but their divergences into elements of deathcore and progressive rock are all the more powerful as complements to the album’s centrepieces. In all, The Work just… works.
I was late to the game on Owls, and to be honest I didn’t expect a whole lot from The Work. It feels good to be pleasantly surprised. After several spins I’ve found that my favorite tracks shift depending on my mood, which is a fairly high compliment that for me indicates RoN’s mastery of multiple styles, tones, and textures. I’ve thoroughly enjoyed each outing with this record, and I look forward to many more in the future. A worthy successor to a career-defining record.
Succumb – XXI (death metal)
Long before I contributed to black and death metal columns, A Headbanger’s Journey was my window into the intriguing, sinister worlds of both genres. I can’t recall the artist, but one quote stuck with me: black metal was the bestial response to the flash and showmanship of death metal. Aesthetically speaking, you can’t have much more contrast than lo-fi, black and white prints and graphic, colorful paintings of ghoulish and gory scenes. And while death metal is hardly a glamorous genre musically, the rawness deficit it has with black metal is difficult to deny.
This general sentiment is the core reason I love Succumb as much as I do. The prospect of a death metal band endorsed by The Flenser immediately piqued my interest, and the band’s self-titled debut delivered. Their intense, animalistic take on the genre captured the punk spirit that informed early extreme metal, when the lines between black, death, and thrash were still undefined.
XXI is an improvement on that template at every level. Succumb display all the hallmark traits of a sophomore success, specifically the presence of looser, more comfortable songwriting. Metal debuts often feel understandably defined; bands write carefully crafted songs to establish their core sound. With a full album and tour cycle under wraps, there’s more room for bands to experiment and push the boundaries of their sound. Succumb excel at this sonic expansion. As excellent as their debut is, XXI is executed with noticeably more confidence. Everything is faster, nastier, and more expansive than before, all while maintaining the band’s signature primal voice.
Which brings us back to the top of this review. There were plenty of bands that leaned into the “glitz and glamor” of death metal this month to great success, whether musically (Rivers of Nihil) or aesthetically (Aborted). But when it comes to the core tenets of death metal’s appeal, Succumb nail it better than the vast majority of caverncore bands. While their peers try to manufacture as evil a sound as possible, Succumb come through with organic songwriting chops that make truly sinister death metal sound effortless to produce.