Blood. Gore. Death metal. Ah, the glorious days of the old school. We all know the tales of yore in which Cannibal Corpse and Morbid Angel became household names and cultural pariahs, incurring the wrath of one Vice President’s wife and the shock and awe of the music world at large. Those were the days. While death metal ebbed and flowed in both popularity and quality after its initial surge during the early-to-mid 90s, it wasn’t until the mid 2010s that death metal’s darkest, dankest, and outright filthiest sounds began dominating the underground airwaves once more (and with gusto). The old school death metal revival has been one of the extreme music world’s most consistently amazing recent aberrations, with a veritable hoard of bands picking up the mantle laid down by bands like Incantation, Immolation, Death, and the like with absolutely scalding results. Death metal’s core sound and aesthetic was once more alive and well, with hosts of quality records dropping at a rapid clip, ready to be dissected and celebrated here in this column each and every month. But alas and alack, all good things must slowly but surely come to an end.
In the 2020s thus far, death metal bands seem to have cooled somewhat in their emphasis on the more traditional sounds of death metal. Influential OSDM revivalists like Blood Incantation, Horrendous, and Tomb Mold have evolved in sound to a point where it would be hard to classify them as OSDM anymore, moving outside of the musical confines of the revival and into more progressive songwriting. Thus is the natural order of things in the metal world. Bands often grow, shift, and develop into entirely different entities than they once were, and with that evolution certain sounds get relegated to the bin of history. While I wouldn’t go so far as to say that the OSDM revival is finished (a few albums below offer ample evidence to the contrary), it would be difficult to argue that it hasn’t lost some of its potency and influence over the past few years. So where does death metal stand in 2021, as one of its key identifiers over the past decade wanes in influence?
Good news, friends: The golden age of technical and progressive death metal is upon us.
Filling the spaces left by their OSDM counterparts, this year has been absolutely overstuffed with progressive and technical death metal that is, in my estimation, some of the best to be released in years. Bands like Ad Nauseam, Atvm, Rivers of Nihil, Alustrium, Esoctrilihum, Ophidian I, Blindfolded and Led to the Woods, Replicant, Qrixkuor, Diskord, Seputus, and a smorgasbord of others are dropping albums that in many cases are not only some of the best of their respective careers but are also paving new paths for their genres as a whole. Below you’ll find a few such records that will undoubtedly be populating several of our year-end lists, and are evidence of a burgeoning emphasis on progressive and technical songwriting that feels primed to usher in the next phase of death metal domination. And in case it wasn’t clear, I’m all about it.
There feels like a definitive change happening within the death metal world in 2021, and only time will tell if my predictions for the future of the genre ring true. Either way I cannot wait to see what the next few years have in store. In the meantime, if you’ve yet to do so, give some of the records below a listen. We assure you that you won’t be disappointed.
Honor the old. Celebrate the new. Death metal forever.
Cream of the Crop
First Fragment – Gloire Eternelle (progressive/technical death metal)
My relationship with technical death metal is fraught. At its core, I take issue with the overly stale emphasis the roots of the genre often had (to my ears) with technicality for technicality’s sake. I also often don’t like the general aesthetics of the genre, finding that style of very abrasive, greyscale sort of science fiction/space opera to be a bit tepid and not exciting. Luckily for me then, there’s been a change of a resurgence in technical death metal over the last few years (more like a decade, to be honest) that has modified the way the sub-genre approaches both its compositional emphasis and its overall aesthetics. It has seen the sound move closer to progressive death metal, taken on elements that don’t have to be constantly at 11 to be engaging, interesting or impressive technically. This has created what, to me, sounds like a more dynamic and challenging version of technical death metal.
For an example, look no further than First Fragment, especially on their newest release, Gloire Éternelle. On it, the band bring to the fore a diverse set of influences ranging from progressive rock, shred metal (think Yngwie Malmsteen and even Symphony X at times), death metal, and even flamenco. More than ever before, this wide range of styles and sounds is not “just” an addition but something baked into the basic formula of First Fragment and how they sound and work. One really needs look no further than the opening, self-titled track on the album to hear this. It’s not “just” that there’s a flamenco guitar piece which opens the track but also how its buoyant groove repeats throughout the track, informing the basic building blocks of the groove section, the main guitar riffs, and even inflecting the numerous and wildly technical solos that litter the track. It gives everything a spring in its step, an extra umph to the beat, the structure, and the timbre of the track.
Of course, this is most present on the bass and the bass is one of the most present instruments on the album, especially when describing the ways in which it is progressive. I say “of course” because Dominic “Forest” Lapointe’s bass playing is one of the main draw points of First Fragment and one of the main things they are famous for. And with good reason; Lapointe continues to be not just one of the most gifted musicians in the scene but also a compositional master, creating sounds and bringing forth ideas that are as exciting as ever. Some might take chagrin with how loud his parts on the album are; not just in music but also in “weight”, in how much space they take in the compositions. But I find this to actually be an improvement, bringing even further into the light one of the most unique elements of the band and their sound.
Add this into the already cited range of influences above, alongside excellent performances from the rest of the band, and you get one hell of an album. Gloire Éternelle is a long album, both in runtime and in sheer breadth of ideas and sounds covered. But the journey is totally worth it, presenting an immensely satisfying version of technical/progressive death metal that’s truly unchained and willing to draw its influences from wherever they might come.
Best of the Rest
Archspire – Bleed the Future (technical death metal)
“What in the actual fuck?”
I could just end the review right here, honestly. The above phrase received voice approximately a dozen times throughout my first listen through Bleed the Future, technical death metal masters Archspire’s fourth and undoubtedly best full-length record. While 2017’s Relentless Mutation felt like a giant leap forward for the band both stylistically and performatively, Archspire 4.0 feels even more ambitious, aggressive, and technically proficient. How that’s possible I’m not exactly sure, but this much I do know: Bleed the Future is a murderous abomination of a record that presents some of the year’s most batshit instrumental pyrotechnics in any genre. It’s fucking lethal in the best way possible, and an improvement on nearly every aspect of the band’s established sound.
It’s impossible to talk about an Archspire record without mentioning the people who make this incomprehensibly speedy noise. Guitarists Dean Lamb and Tobi Morelli are virtuoso musicians, full stop. Their work on Bleed the Future is intricate, layered, brutal, and impossibly precise. Give “Drone Corpse Aviator” or “Abandon the Linear” a listen and tell me that tracks like “Involuntary Doppelgänger” don’t seem just a little bit more sluggish in comparison. They’ve upped their game throughout Bleed the Future and it’s evident in every track. Drummer Spencer Prewett (is he even human? I’m honestly not sure) and bassist Jared Smith absolutely destroy as one of the most solid rhythm sections in metal, laying blast-heavy foundations for Lamb and Morelli’s guitars to dance on, over, and across. Their work here is sublime, and is accented brilliantly by the band’s most controversial asset, vocalist Oli Aleron. His shotgun-style, rap-adjacent delivery has always been one of the make-or-break elements of the band’s music, and if you hated it then you’ll certainly hate it now. But for those of us entranced by Aleron’s jackhammer delivery, Bleed the Future represents some of his best and most mind-blowing moments. Just give “Drain of Incarnation” a listen if you doubt that assertion.
Stopping on that particular track for a moment, Bleed the Future puts the band’s most mature and various songwriting on the table in a few key moments. The mixture and juxtaposition of lightning speed sections with more approachable melodic portions ends up being one of the album’s principal strengths, with tracks like the above-mentioned “Drain” and “Acrid Canon” offering gorgeous and soaring melody as a prologue to intense sonic violence to come. It’s a move the band has relied on before, but never with this level of effectiveness. “Reverie on the Onyx” represents the apex of this approach, bouncing between the light and shimmering and brutal beatdown in a way that feels generous to the listener as well as deeply organic in execution. It’s another shining example of why this record slaps to high heaven.
There’s a line of thought that believes there is no such thing as a “perfect” record, and on the whole I believe that to be true. But when viewing records and tracks through the prism of their intended impact and the genre confines they occupy, it may indeed be possible to label a piece of music, at least on a micro level, perfect. Bleed the Future comes dangerously close to that lofty status, representing some of the most fully realized technical death metal of this ilk that I have ever heard. This is a game-changer moment for the band and for technically-inclined death metal as a whole, and if this doesn’t blow brains right out the back of your head in similar fashion to the album artwork, I’m not sure what will. An absurd, technical masterpiece.
Atræ Bilis – Apexapien (technical/brutal death metal)
I was raking leaves the first time I heard Atræ Bilis’ fantastic debut EP Divinihility. I’m not sure if I actually finished that project or not, but given my backyard gyrations during “Sulphur Curtain” and “Ectopian” I feel fairly confident that more than a few leaves ended up over the fence and in my neighbor’s yard (sorry, Gabe!). That miniature death machine was one of my favorite slabs of technically leaning brutal death that I heard all that year, and left me salivating for more. In 2021, the metal gods smiled upon me with the release of Apexapien, the band’s first full-length recording. If Divinihility smacked us around a bit, this record finishes the job. It’s punishing. It’s brutal. It’s technical. It’s fucking awesome.
Opening track “Theta” lets you know right off the bat what the hell you’ve gotten yourself into, laying down a veritable onslaught of twisting riffs, relentless percussion, and brutal bass work brutal enough to melt a few faces. It’s only a minute and a half long, but anyone who says they hate intro tracks should probably give this one a fair shake before casting judgment against all instrumental openers. As a thoroughly entertaining composition it stands on its own, but as a primer for subsequent track “Lore Beyond Bone” it’s borderline perfect. Unpredictable, bludgeoning, and unexpectedly melodic, “Lore” sets up the principal musical motifs of the record with impeccable skill, crafting a track that feels appropriately brutal without sacrificing variety and melody. It’s a thoroughly excellent one-two punch that sets up listeners for the madness to come.
We could spend a significant amount of digital ink breaking down each of the tracks on this record, but I would be remiss if I didn’t mention some of the technical aspects that make this album such a joy. On a songwriting front it’s obvious that the band took the lessons they learned from Divinihility and applied them liberally across Apexapien’s eight tracks. These compositions are absolutely stuffed with great ideas, executed brilliantly by a group of musicians that means business. While not diving quite into the technical madness that a few albums covered this month plunge into, the instrumental performances here are uniformly excellent. Luka Govednik’s drumming is a particular highlight, winding and slithering with brute precision through and around each track with energy and alacrity. Though each musician here has more than ample time to shine, and each takes advantage liberally. The production is solid, the guitar tone is pure filth, and the overall vibe is pitch perfect.
If you find yourself a fan of the in-between spaces that connect brutal and technical death metal it will be almost impossible to go wrong with Apexapien. A balanced, deeply enjoyable blend of the crushing and sinuous, there’s little to complain about here. A truly fantastic debut that I cannot stop listening to.
Be’lakor – Coherence (melodic/progressive death metal)
I was first introduced to Australian melodeath masters Be’lakor through their 2016 record Vessels, which opened up a world for me that I had seldom tapped into in regards to death metal as a whole. Melodeath has never been my favorite of death metal’s many subgenres, but Be’lakor’s epic, intricate approach to this style of music propelled me into a space where the work of Insomnium, Omnium Gatherum, and Dark Tranquility not only made a lot more sense, but after a time became pretty damn enjoyable. Be’lakor still remain one of my favorite melodeath bands, and their fifth full-length record Coherence does little to change that status. Robust, bombastic, deeply dramatic and instrumentally superb, it’s the Be’lakor follow-up to Vessels that I was hoping for.
Those familiar with the band’s work will be grateful to find all of the band’s signature touchstones alive and well. The guitars are front-and-center, always propelling the music forward with gusto. Opener “Locus” divides its time between progressive-leaning passages, melodic segues, and general chugitude in a way that feels like quintessential Be’lakor. George Kasmos’ always amazing vocals are a particular highlight both here and throughout the record, ebbing and flowing into that raspy growl only he can deliver. As is often the case with Be’lakor, more epic sections of melodic death metal goodness are followed by more quiet, synth-heavy passages designed to build on the album’s general mood. “The Dispersion” serves as one of these moments, but thankfully the band are more focused on full-bodied composition than mood-setting, and Coherence is chock-full of incredible moments, with highlights being “Hidden Window” and absolutely epic closer “Much More Was Lost”. Those who love old Be’lakor being old Be’lakor, rejoice. Coherence was designed for you.
While not a dive into anything particularly new for the band, Coherence is an effective and moving record that feels like an emotional highlight reel of the band’s career this far, culminating in a sequence of tracks that stand tall among the band’s best work. There’s something to be said for consistency, and to my ears Be’lakor haven’t released a dud yet. Give it a go if you need a little more melody in your life.
Outre-Tombe – Abysse Mortifere (old school death metal)
For all the chatter this month about technical and progressive death metal, let’s not forget that while not perhaps on the delirious upward trajectory that it has been on over the past several years, OSDM is still spitting out some of the best music in this space. If you doubt that, look no further than Outre-Tombe, whom over the course of three full-lengths have only grown more proficient and brazen in their approach to the most riff-heavy interpretations of the genre. Their latest (and greatest) record Abysse Mortifere is an absolute show-stopper that brings the band’s mission to find the perfect marriage between the old and new to full maturity with perhaps the most perfect historical counterpart: Bolt Thrower.
It is literally impossible to listen to Abysse Mortifere without hearing the similarities between Outre-Tombe’s relentless barrage of hardened and murky riffage without thinking of one of death metal’s most treasured bands. This record is slathered in Bolt Thrower’s filthy influence, particularly in the opening title track and “Exsangue”, which feel like they could have been ripped directly from the War Master sessions. But all of this comparison is in no way intended as a slight toward Outre-Tombe. The band wear their influences on their sleeve in the best way, incorporating elements from the early days of death metal that feel both historically nostalgic and immediately refreshing. Interspersed throughout the record one can find Morbid Angel solos, an absolutely gargantuan and filthy vocal performance by Crachat, and some of the most genuinely memorable riffs of the year. Seriously. I can’t think of a record that had more genuinely amazing riffs in it that I’ve heard this year. It you’re down for all the riffs you can handle, look no further. Outre-Tombe has you covered.
I really love this album. Every time I listen to it I dig it more. While not a technical wankery masterwork or progressive revelation, Abysse Mortifere knows exactly what it’s doing and accomplishes its mission with absolute aplomb. A killer record that fans of the old school revival would be mistaken to pass up. A flat-out banger start-to-finish.
Sunless – Ylem (dissonant/progressive death metal)
There’s a particular brand of chaotic, dissonant, progressive death metal that approaches complete inaccessibility for the uninitiated. I’m thinking here about the Altarage, Portal, Serpent Column, and Infernal Coil’s of the world. These are the types of bands that, once accustomed to the insanity of their musical stylings, garner deeply loyal fanbases that relish the further plunge into the chaotic abyss that each subsequent release brings. But for listeners of death metal branching into weirder territory, there’s little to grasp onto as you descend into madness, leaving many of this particular subset of death metal largely untapped. Perhaps it’s due to inaccessibility being considered one of this brand of music’s defining factors, but I’ve always hoped for quality death metal of this stripe that feels both qualitatively excellent while providing a potential bridge to adventurous listeners. Earlier this year we got Atvm, who were able to accomplish just that. Now we also have Sunless, whose second full-length record Ylem is a gobsmacking feat of progressive death metal songwriting.
Look, I’m not about to say that this record is accessible in the general sense of the word. These tracks are absolutely rife with winding, complex, unpredictable passages that feel as dissonant and off-putting as anything released by the bands above. But where Sunless separate themselves from the pack in their chosen musical space is through songwriting that is unafraid to give listeners just enough rope to grip that the more looney tunes descents into wack-a-doodle wankery feel far less stigmatizing. Take “Atramentous” as an example, where the band take a few central riffs and lets them ride in a way that feels somewhat approachable and intelligible compared to some of the genres most elusive practitioners. But these moments of approachability in no way minimize the band’s technical abilities, instead heightening them with an increased sense of maturity. Their debut album Uracca was a thoroughly brilliant record, but Ylem ups the ante in every way, presenting crisper musicianship, more egalitarian songwriting, and a nuanced approach to the barriers that this type of music often puts up. It’s a stellar piece of work.
Sunless don’t get talked about often enough. As far as progressive and dissonant death metal goes there are few bands that are as capable, elastic, and captivating. As a band unafraid to let a little light shine through the general storm of their music, they’re also a breath of fresh air. Not at all an album for a noob to the death metal world, but for those looking for a discernible portal into metal’s golden future you’d be hard pressed to find a more dynamic and mature record to dive into.
Worm – Foreverglade (death-doom)
I usually start out these blurbs with some contextual ramblings, partially to amuse myself, partially because driving straight into the music gets old for reviewers after a while. I honestly had some kind of Professor Oak analogy forming in my head during my umpteenth listen of Foreverglade today; something about Worm having to choose between death-doom, funeral doom, and caverncore, only to swipe all three and then burn the lab down behind them.
But fuck all of that. Foreverglade is a goddamn revelation, and you should listen to it pronto.
Ok, maybe not literally right now; I still have to say something to fill this space. If I’m being totally honest, I only made it part way through Foreverglade before I had to head home, and I wasn’t paying as close attention as I could have been. My phone auto connected to bluetooth as “Subaqueous Funeral” started playing…and I was fucking floored. The three-minute excursion stays true to its title, with cavernous production and somber guitar leads providing a fitting eulogy at sea. Maybe it was how the track caught me off guard, maybe it was how the track surrounded me via my car speakers. But when I say Worm’s style clicked for me at that moment, I mean that I fell head over heels for what’s quickly becoming one of my favorite death metal albums of the year.
Needless to say, I went back and replayed Foreverglade and gave the album my full attention. Hearing the rest of the tracklist through that lens helped me recognize everything Worm accomplishes on their 20 Buck Spin debut. Foreverglade is an impeccably produced blend of all the greatest aspects that define death and funeral doom. Seriously, this is one of the best-produced death metal records I’ve heard in some time; it hits the sweet spot of sounding cavernous without sounding like it was literally recorded in a cave. If you’ve ever wished that bands like Evoken were even heavier, then man oh man does Worm have the perfect record for you.
Conjureth – Majestic Dissolve (goopy gross death metal)
Continuing in the footsteps of his now-disbanded Ghoulgotha, one of the coolest cult death metal bands of the past decade, Wayne “Elektrokutioner” Sarantopolous brings Dan Swano’s off-kilter melodic style from Edge of Sanity to a more traditional death metal setting. Majestic Dissolve traces outlines of earliest Morbid Angel, Dismember, and Pestilence, but with an impressively crunchy and weird edge. Can’t recommend this enough to anyone who knows enough about the genre to follow Ken’s Death Metal Crypt on YouTube. If you somehow need further convincing, check out Wayne’s guitar.
Sulphurous – The Black Mouth of Sepulchre (nasty big riff death metal)
This shit, another album from the Hyperdontia cinematic universe, is my personal death metal catnip. Black Mouth finds this duo splitting the difference on the most cyclonic ass-beater riffs from David Vincent-era Morbid Angel with the high-falutin Big Grim Melodies that have been the most shockingly cool parts of Immolation’s more recent output. Stupefying, apocalyptic, and huge beyond words. This one’s probably my death metal album of the year next to Worm.