Welcome to Death’s Door, hellions. The end is upon us. In almost every sense. But in this particular context we refer to our monthly coverage of death metal in the year that is 2021. After one of the most unusual years for musical production in recent memory, 2021 came in like a bat straight out of hell, churning out release after amazing release. I think it would be fairly safe to say that death metal had a fairly monumental year in ways that I didn’t expect, and the end of the year certainly didn’t slow down in terms of fundamentally excellent releases. Death metal is alive and well, and we thank our infernal underlords for their bountiful provision.
Given that this will be our last entry before our end-of-year round-up, we’ve liberally fudged on our timeline for releases covered. You will see some December releases squeaking into our coverage this month, as we wanted to give some well-deserved shine to their late-year existence. Time is a lie anyway.
Feast on the meaty flesh of premium death metal. Forever.
Cream of the Crop
Obscura – A Valediction (technical/progressive death metal)
As I ranted and raved last month, 2021 seems to be the year of transcendent tech death. Perhaps more than in any subgenre of death metal over the past year, technical wizardry and progressive songwriting have generated some of the year’s most noteworthy and thoroughly entertaining listens. Equally interesting is the particular lack of major disappointments from among the style’s elite. Archspire’s latest record was an absolute triumph, while Phil Tougas’ project First Fragment also lived up to its pedigree, delivering some of the best technical death metal I’ve heard in years. It would only make sense then, by metallic deity decree, that Obscura would drop the best album of their career in 2021 with A Valediction. Yeah, I said what I said. It’s that good.
There’s nothing about this album I don’t enjoy. In fact, to my ears nearly foible and issue that beset the band’s previous releases are smoothed, refined, or outright eliminated. This is mainly accomplished through the band’s most focused and aggressive songwriting to date. Sure, there’s techy wankery aplenty (as is customary in any Obscura release), but rather than trying to take their technical reputation to the next level the band instead stick with a formula that allows their most commendable attributes to shine all the clearer. Opener “Forsaken” provides ample evidence of this shift in emphasis, presenting a composition that lilts, tilts, writhes and slides from riff to exceptional riff, each new section stacking perfectly into its predecessor. It’s not the most insanely technical piece the band have written and it most certainly doesn’t need to be. Here, Obscura’s penchant to careen into extended passages of techy insanity is refocused into a songwriting motif that allows melody to reign supreme. It’s effective as all hell.
Take tracks “Solaris” and “When Stars Collide” as exemplars of the above. These tracks are tight, intricate, aggressive, and filled with fully discernable melodies that are among the finest the band has yet written. These are tracks that feel like honed and condensed versions of much longer songs that would have populated some of their previous releases. Everything is more to-the-point and bullshit free and that approach helps this record stand titanic among the band’s already exceptional discography. The performances are, as always, uniformly excellent with each member finding plenty of time to shine within an outstanding mix. It really is the complete package for fans of the band’s body of work.
I’ve listened to this record at least 10 times at this juncture and I’ve yet to have an experience that was anything less than exceptional. Form the straightforward death metal mastery presented throughout “In Unity” to the final elegiac notes of “Heritage”, there’s so much to love and so little to criticize. While I’ve always enjoyed Obscura’s work, I’ll be honest and state that there are few of their records I’ve unabashedly loved front to back. A Valediction changed that. I adore this record, and am confident in proclaiming it one of my absolute favorites of 2021.
Best of the Rest
Dormant Ordeal – The Grand Scheme of Things (dissonant technical death metal)
Dormant Ordeal are a band that laid my soul to waste with their sophomore head stomper We Had it Coming. It was a vicious, relentless barrage of thoroughly excellent death metal that was among the finest releases of 2016. It’s been a whopping half-decade since we last heard from them, and for some odd reason their unimpeachable reputation as purveyors of some of the finest death metal on the planet hasn’t reached the popular recognition that the quality of their music should elicit. Here’s hoping The Grand Scheme of Things changes that, because Dormant Ordeal are back at it again with the bone splintering riffs.
In many ways, The Grand Scheme of Things picks up right where We Had it Coming left off. The songwriting is an equally brilliant amalgam of intellectually engaging and utterly punishing passages that never veer too far into either technical wizardry or thuggish brute force. Always maniacally aggressive, each track here is a freight train of goodness being shoved right down your throat with more than enough moments of diversity to keep the proceedings from getting dull or monotonous. Take “Bright Constellations” as a shining example of the band’s songwriting and performative modus operandi. The first half of the track is as punishing as anything the band has yet written, dipping into Decapitated territory in its fundamental sense of death metal punishment. But get past the halfway point and the composition morphs into something deeply melodic and emotive without ever losing its sense of frantic violence. The final minute is borderline transcendent, reaching new heights the band has yet to reach. It’s an incredibly difficult balance to strike and Dormant Ordeal absolutely nail the tightrope walk they’re attempting here.
I could spend paragraphs highlighting the phenomenal craftsmanship contained throughout every delicious second of this deeply punishing and infinitely rewarding record, but I’d rather let you experience it for yourself on your own terms. I feel utterly confident that you won’t be disappointed. Melding the swirling sonic maelstrom of Ulcerate with the doom blade violence of Hate Eternal, the rhythmic sensibilities of Dyscarnate, and the emotional darkness of Gaerea, it’s one of the most invigorating and consistently fantastic releases I’ve heard this year. I don’t foresee an outcome where this record doesn’t land on my year-end list. Do not, I repeat, DO NOT skip this record. This is a very talented band doing exactly what they do best and it’s a glorious and harrowing thing to experience.
Lock Up – The Dregs of Hades (deathgrind)
To be honest, I feel kind of weird about including The Dregs of Hades this month. For starters, it’s a little superfluous to recommend a veteran supergroup featuring some key players in the metal scene. I mean, just look at this lineup: Shane Embury (Napalm Death) on bass, Tomas Lindberg (At the Gates) on vocals, Anton Reisenegger (Pentagram) on guitar, and Adam Jarvis (Misery Index, Pig Destroyer) on drums. Wild, right?
More importantly, I feel like the line between deathgrind can be a bit of a fine one. Take the two main projects Jarvis plays in: both land somewhere on the deathgrind spectrum, but I’d feel much more comfortable including Misery Index in Death’s Door than Pig Destroyer. I guess you can use early Nuclear Death and Terrorizer as barometers, or hold an album up to pre- and post- Harmony Corruption era Napalm Death and see what it matches most.
Then again…who gives a shit?
I genuinely had the incoherent thoughts I regurgitated above, but they were ultimately overpowered by how much The Dregs of Hades kept crushing me. Maybe it’s the infusion of young talent from Jarvis, but this is some of the most energized extreme metal I’ve heard from veterans of the scene. Whether your preference is blast-laden blitzes or mid-paced romps, Lock Up nail every element on the deathgrind checklist. Sure, the songs may be a little long for some grind fans, and the attitude may be too punky for death metal pursist. But for those of us comfortable with genre venn diagrams, The Dregs of Hades is one hell of a good time.
Teeth – Finite (technical death metal/grind)
Every so often a record rears its hideous head and knocks your teeth in seemingly from out of nowhere. Which is apropos, given the fact that Teeth picked the perfect band name for their brand of audio chaos and it’s impact on listeners’ chompers. 2019’s The Curse of Entropy was a dizzying, pulverizing shot across the bow, and ended up being one of our favorites of that year. 2021 sees the band return with an EP that follows directly in the footsteps of its predecessor but with an even nastier aesthetic. If you had any doubts about Teeth’s ability to maintain the quality of its breakthrough release, rest at ease: Finite’s a banger.
Finite is a violent record, blending the band’s signature elements of death, doom, and grind into a seething, roiling cesspool of aggression that features just enough modulation and variety to keep things from getting stale. Tracks like “Garden of Eyes” and “Dreamless Hieroglyphs” highlight the band’s continually improving ability to blend styles and tonal changes into cohesive compositions. But the band still thrives in its most manically aggressive moments like “Concubine”, which features a central riff that smacks of the darkness of Our Place of Worship Is Silence. Rather than reinventing their formula, Finite sees Teeth tweaking their already established methodology into something even more varied and sinister. My only complaint is that it’s too short.
Fans of the band’s 2019 release will find plenty to live in Finite. As a truncated snippet of the band’s abilities, it’s an excellent listen and one that I have returned to frequently since its release. Here’s hoping we get another full-length soon. But until then we have Finite to bleach our exposed and broken bones. What a beating.
Dream Unending – Tide Turns Eternal
Dream Unending, the new death-doom project from Tomb Mold’s Derrick Vella and Innumerable Forms’ Justin DeTore, is every bit as important and substantial as either of those acts, who would be shoe-ins on any given Death’s Door column during their respective release windows. However, Dream Unending is a magnificent beast all its own that is more than the sum of its parts; a death-doom supergroup from 20 Buck Spin? You could probably imagine the slow, churning, cavernous reverberations now. Tide Turns Eternal though, much like last month’s Foreverglade by Worm, is building the case for an ethereal and melodic take on the often challenging subgenre.
In fact, Tide Turns Eternal is often beautiful and deeply haunting, evoking acts such as Anathema and Paradise Lost while maintaining a familiar OSDM aesthetic at its core. Atop those trudging riffs lie intensely melodic guitar solos and psychedelic guitar arpeggios that offer hooks on hooks, delivered through airtight songwriting that is spacious, yet doesn’t meander. It’s truly a captivating record that stands apart in a crowded 2021 as a true highlight with real staying power.
Civerous – Decrepit Flesh Relic (mean goopy death-doom)
Listen to the intro track. You can tell by looking at it it’s an intro track, and you’re gonna want to skip it, and you’re gonna hit play on it and say “Calder? This is just noise and I want to skip it, please let me get to the riffs, you’re standing in my way,” to which I’ll reply, “Take my hand!” and pull you through the fog of agonal gasps to the precipice of an incomprehensibly enormous cavernous descent into pure blackness and push you over at the 2:12 mark. There you’ll spend the next, god, what feels like ages in this lightless hell, falling, sliding, and shambling through dank goo and gore until, slick with your own regurgitations and blind as a worm, you ooze into an unknowably large chamber with a single beam of light. It illuminates a craven pedestal of organ and bone, and there upon it? Well…
Decrepit Flesh Relic is a malicious, mucilaginous masterpiece of murky riffs and a shitstomper of a first full-length from LA’s blackened death-doom summoners Civerous. Combining a true mastery of humid, cavernous atmosphere like Lantern or Worm with the vicious, canine riffing of Xibalba and Terminal Nation arrives at some semblance of the hopeless, insidious, gloopy sound Civerous have sloughed together on their debut album. As disgusting as it feels to wade through, it’s grandiose, and chunky, and slippery, and incredibly compelling as it culminates in a funereal denouement on “Spiral of Eyes” that succeeds at bringing a sense of closure to your stomach-flipping journey. “From the Crypt to the Cavern” features one of those low-and-slow-as-good-BBQ, pullin’-the-tractor-through-the-mud, my-pool’s-haulin’-ass-around-the-backyard ass deadlift riffs that gets stuck in your head at least once a day. The whole album is pockmarked with such gems, with each track giving a new taste of their penchant for fight riffs slowed down to a stanky sluice.
I’m a bit of a fair weather fan to death-doom stylings, but Civerous have proven they’re adept at both in lock step, delivering one of the most enjoyably chewy releases of the year. Decrepit Flesh Relic may benefit from some recency bias, but it’s one of the biggest pleasant surprises of the year, so expect to see it end up somewhere in my end-of-year considerations; I’ll likely still be jamming into well into 2022.