Tech death has an excess problem. While last year’s absolutely riveting crop of records serves as a hopeful new trend within the subgenre, technically focused death metal has been universally plagued by the practical application of far too much from its inception. Sure, the over-the-top spectacle of it all is part of tech death’s distinct charm, but when sheer instrumental wankery serves as a mask to cover a band’s inability to write quality songs it becomes obvious fairly quickly that the emperor of the artificial intelligence concept album is wearing no clothes. We listen once for the sheer spectacle, twice to realize the songs themselves have no cohesive vision or structure, and then relegate them to the dustbin of “have-heards” that gets skimmed over come list month. Which is why albums like Allegaeon’s sixth studio album Damnum are so delightful and vital.
I’ve always been a big fan of Allegaeon. Hailing from my hometown, it’s been a pleasure watching them develop a rabid (and in my opinion justifiable) following while carving a definitive niche for themselves through their wildly technical and deeply melodic approach to death metal. But even I can admit that their focus has often wavered from album to album, and while I found Apoptosis to be a delightful head trip, it often felt like the band was digging into their more technical side for its own sake. This isn’t an inherently negative thing, as it’s blatantly obvious that Allegaeon as a collective are among the most talented musicians in the game. But death metal’s staying power always comes in the songwriting, and Allegaeon’s focus on this aspect of their music has often felt less pronounced than the development of their technical chops. There’s always been more than enough balance between these elements in their music to keep any of their releases from falling into the dumpster of instantly forgettable records, but I’ve been anxiously awaiting the album that pulls the whole thing together.
Damnum is that record, and I couldn’t love it more.
For those already dreading an exposition on how Damnum is some monumental shift in direction for Allegaeon, rest easy. Every aspect that makes Allegaeon a special band is here and cranked to 11 throughout. It’s an approach not dissimilar to Obscura’s magnificent 2021 release A Valediction in regards to its refinement and amplification of a band’s established sound. Burgess and Stancel’s guitar pyrotechnics are as monumental and prodigiously head-spinning as ever, Brandon Michael’s bass soars, and new drummer Jeff Saltzman’s work on the kit is delightfully nuanced and absolutely ferocious. It’s hard to point to tracks that best highlight their skills because each composition on this record does just that in spades. The Allegaeon you know and love is still very much intact and as beastly as ever. But it’s where the band decided to dig in deeper and where they made decisions to pull back that make Damnum an especially incredible and mature piece of work.
The most immediately obvious shift from Allegaeon’s established formula is in the vocal department. Riley McShane has always incorporated cleans into the band’s music, but his diverse skill set as a vocalist is put on full display in Damnum. While album opener “Bastards of the Earth” is a blackened tech banger of the highest order (and happens to include one of catchiest riffs I’ve heard so far this year), McShane’s cleans in the latter half of the track present a beautiful sidebar that becomes a pattern as the record progresses. “Of Beasts and Worms” brings this direction to the forefront with supreme effectiveness, allowing McShane to belt out significant portions of the track in powerful, compelling cleans. The chorus in particular is a harmonious banger that presents one of the album’s first truly monumental moments.
But it’s in “Called Home” where McShane’s development as a vocalist feels most pronounced. His range on this particular track is absolutely bananas. Jumping between guttural death growls, blackened upper register snarls, and Opeth-adjacent Åkerfeldt worship, it’s a display of vocal prowess that is as stunning as it is brilliant in execution. But if you’re worried that this highlighting of McShane’s cleans is an indicator of a softening for Allegaeon, just give it a few minutes and you’ll find him spitting rapid fire verse in “The Dopamine Void, Pt. II” with enough alacrity to give Oli from Archspire a run for his money. The record is replete with such showstopping moments, and feels like a true watershed for McShane and his evolution as a vocalist. It couldn’t sound any more resplendent or impactful.
Another effective transition for the band is an increased emphasis on acoustic instrumental work. From the opening moments of the album this direction takes hold and doesn’t abate, with a multitude of tracks on the record featuring elongated sections of beautiful acoustic work that remind me fondly of First Fragment’s opus from last year. These sections don’t feel tacked on or like throwaway flourishes, but instead most often represent transitional shifts in tempo and tone that enter at opportune moments, allowing the often suffocating technicality to breathe and gain some layered dimension. The inclusion of more acoustic instrumentation feels very intentional as a songwriting mechanic, which above all other areas is where Damnum shines the brightest.
I feel supremely confident in stating Damnum represents the greatest leap forward in songwriting for the band yet. The album flows exceptionally well because each track within it contains logical, exciting, and surprising developments that feel incredibly well thought out and constructed. Where some inessential melodic meandering has been one of my principal critiques of Allegaeon’s work up to this point, Damnum is more focused than any of their previous records, barreling from track to track with a powerful sonic uniformity of vision that maintains its cohesiveness from start to finish. The album’s opener represents one of the best examples of this evolution, as the track’s central riff bellows, whispers, and transforms several times throughout, making the track feel varied and always interesting without once losing the plot. The riff writing across the board is simply spectacular, consistently creating strong central motifs for the rest of the music to swirl, expand, and melt down around. It’s the clearest example of the band’s growth between records and helps Damnum stick out in the band’s stellar discography.
If I have one mild criticism to levy, it’s a hope that the band will continue to hone this direction into even tighter records moving forward. For all of its notable and commendable elements, Damnum still comes in at an hour in length, which can feel like a marathon for even the most seasoned of melodic tech death fans. Further editing will help Allegaeon’s massive sound continue to increase its effectiveness, though when the music is this exceptional it’s hard for me to throw in any major complaints. Every track here is a stunner.
As I wrap up this review, I keep thinking of more things that I love about this record. Like its de-escalation of aberrant technicality for memorable riffs and more nuanced approach to balancing the heavy and the beautiful, or the fact that I could write two whole paragraphs about how FUCKING INSANE Saltzman’s kit work is throughout the record, but I think it’s time to let you explore this fantastic sequence of tracks for yourself. Damnum feels revelatory as a statement of intent for an already well-established and deeply revered group, and lord knows where this direction takes them in the future. All I know for certain is that Damnum is the kind of record that moves a band into a new creative stratosphere and my excitement for what the future holds for Allegaeon couldn’t be more acute. This is one of the best records in any genre I’ve heard so far in an already banging 2022 and I recommend it on the strongest of terms. It’s Allegaeon’s strongest and most coherent record yet, and I feel comfortable saying you’ll be hearing about Damnum a lot more as the year progresses. It’s an absolute triumph.
Damnum drops 2/25 on Metal Blade Records, and is available for pre-order on the band’s Bandcamp page.