Welcome back, Hellions.
We’ve missed you.
A lot has transpired since we last connected. War broke out in Europe, and… I mean, I think I’ll just leave it at that. Things are bad. Worse than bad, perhaps. Which makes the high quality of death metal released thus far this year feel all the more vital.
I can’t remember an opening few months to a year as absolutely gobsmacking as 2022. Holy fucking shit. Several of the albums below are not only the cream of the early crop of Q1, but will undoubtedly end up on my year-end list. This is not normal, just like everything happening in the world is not normal, and it soothes my troubled soul knowing that death metal is as vibrant as ever.
We’ve got a bunch of amazing albums to share with you (along with a long rant about the album length debate). Don’t forget to share your favorites from the first few months of 2022 with us on social media. With that, we cordially invite you to jump back into the void with us for another cycle ‘round the sun. Let’s go.
Death metal forever.
The Album Length Conundrum
The metal blogosphere, infinite hive mind that it all too often is, has fairly strong feelings about album length. As an avid partaker and perpetuator of narrative within this community, I don’t divorce myself in any way from having opinions on this topic. As the genre has developed and evolved over its decades of existence, metaheads’ fascination with the nuances of album creation and execution have grown with it. I’ll state definitively that this is a good thing, especially when viewed within the context of subgenre. Each branch of the metal tree has over time developed its own idiosyncrasies and formulas that are often (and rightfully, in my estimation) used as cornerstones of judging a record’s quality. It’s hard to formulate an opinion of an album steeped in the aesthetics of the second wave of black metal without talking about production values (or the lack thereof). It’s these stylistic traits and tendencies that assist listeners and writers in determining the overall measure of an album, which is what makes the conversation around album length so tricky.
When viewing the seemingly infinite scope of the metalverse, it’s fairly evident that there are particular styles of extreme music that lend themselves towards more extended runtimes. Progressive metal comes immediately to mind as a creative space that lends itself toward and in many ways champions the long album. This feels fitting given the often experimental/complex and conceptual nature of the music. But look into any subgenre and you’ll find records that stretch the attention spans of listeners to extremes. For every succinct Mayhem release you’ll find a Paysage d’Hiver blasting listeners into a two hour snow storm of melancholy. For each new slab of nearly sub-half hour Archspire there’s an Ingurgitating Oblivion record pushing an hour in length or an Insomnium track that rocks a nearly 50-minute timestamp. The long album has become a ubiquitous and controversial trademark of nearly every subgenre in metal, and this edition of Death’s Door features two such records that have divided fanbases, and it’s a topic that I think is worth taking a dive into.
An initial inquiry worth lodging on this topic is why it’s controversial at all. Much like in film, music requires a particular amount of time investment to fully immerse yourself in, and not all expenditures of time are created equal. Sitting through two hours of Jupiter Ascending is not quite the same as the three hours required to absorb a Lord of the Rings film. But therein lies the rub. Few would credit the shorter and more compact Jupiter Ascending as superior in any way to one of the films in Jackson’s trilogy (if they would, well… I urge you to deeply reconsider where you get your film criticism from) simply because of its brevity. Likewise, most would not claim LOTR is inherently bad because it takes a significant amount of time to tell its story. The above is a simple argument, to be sure, but I lodge it as a direct repudiation of the notion that art has to be digestible within a certain time frame to be worthy of investment. A film can easily fill three hours with universally quality content, and within that frame of mind I think the hour-long album can be equally justified.
Which brings us to the albums at hand that are currently drumming up some level of controversy in regards to their length: Immolation’s Acts of God and Allegaeon’s Damnum. Both clock in at or just below an hour in length, and represent one of the longest albums of each band’s career up to this point. In the case of Allegaeon, expectations of the faithful made their decision to release an hour-long album anything but a surprise. Given their progressive and technical leanings, expectations for such records always allow for a fair bit of time spent wandering through acoustic soundscapes and solo heavy passages, and while it’s one of their longest offerings listener expectations allow for a bit more leniency here. Immolation, however, represents a more unusual departure from the norm. Acts of God is a 15 track record filled to the brim with raw, old school death metal that was by far the more unexpected and controversial of the two. I haven’t been able to read a single thread on the record that didn’t comment on its length in some form, with some going as far as to decry the record’s quality based on its extensive length. One need only read my review of the record to know that I believe such a response to be folly, but let’s dive deeper.
Contextually, Immolation’s decision to unleash a mammoth record on our unsuspecting asses is a bold move given the current state of the old school death metal revival. Some of the style’s most notable modern purveyors have been regularly dropping records that barely crack the half-hour mark (e.g. Undeath, Blood Incantation, Tomb Mold, Malignant Altar, etc.). Economy has been the name of the game for modern death metal, so Acts of God sticks out even more dramatically in the context of the modern death metal landscape. But, for me at least, Acts of God punches exactly at its weight, with these 15 tracks representing some of the most punishing and magestarial of the band’s career. Not a single track feels superfluous or out of place, and when I pressed myself to try and find tracks to eliminate to make the album more effective I stared at the track list for about ten minutes then gave up. Everything on this record feels like it belongs, which represents my overall take on the album length debate.
Judgment of whether an album benefits or suffers from its length is relatively simple to solve in my estimation. When viewing what an album is trying to accomplish, are there any tracks that I feel could be removed and have no impact on the album’s overall effectiveness? If the answer is yes, an album’s length is excessive and in some way negatively impacts the overall experience. If the answer is no, I couldn’t give two shits how long it is. It’s exactly as long as it needs to be. In my estimation, Immolation wrote Acts of God from the perspective of a boxing match stretching well into the late rounds. It’s not trying to punish you a little bit. It’s instead attempting to brutalize your senses a LOT, and accomplishes that goal with flying colors with no fat or cut-worthy tracks, more than justifying its extensive length. So, for myself, arguments bewailing the album’s nearly hour-long runtime fall as flat as my face after being bludgeoned repeatedly by Vigna’s magnificent riffs.
For me, Acts of God is a direct and powerful blow to the argument that album length on its face represents some barometer of quality. I can think of dozens of other albums that add fuel to that fire. As in all things, context is key. But in my estimation an unusually long album from a seminal band that maintains high quality standards should be celebrated with great verve. All of this is obviously my own opinion, and I wouldn’t presume to make universal proclamations on how anyone should interpret the quality of art they consume. But I hope this line of reasoning combats even slightly notions that new music releases are at a distinct disadvantage simply because of their length. Those holding to such logic are, in my opinion, missing out on some of the most incredible music being released today.
January 14, 2022 was National Deathcore Day
Is covering deathcore in this column controversial? I’m sure somebody will think so. But what is deathcore if not the doorway to death metal? How many folks discovered Suffocation and Dying Fetus because they first heard Job For A Cowboy and Bring Me The Horizon on MySpace in 2005? I’m sure the most ardent gatekeeper can agree that there’s at least some utility there. It’s the splash of milk and sugar that can prepare you to drink unadulterated black coffee!
Like it or not, it’s here, and there’s a lot of it. In fact, a nearly unprecedented amount of it within the first two months of 2022, localized almost entirely on one single release date: January 14th, 2022. Four of some of the most promising deathcore bands in America dropped albums that fateful Friday and filled the weeks to come with not only crushing breakdowns and blasts, but some other surprises as well. What’s impressive about these four records is that while it may seem like they’re competing for the same listeners in a single week, they’ve all got their own character that sets them apart as distinct experiences. Let’s recap:
Fit For An Autopsy – Oh What The Future Holds
New Jersey’s Fit For An Autopsy might be the biggest name out of the pack of new releases, and for good reason. Sure, their formula might be a bit meat-and-potatoes compared to the bag of tricks that the others bring to the table, but FFAA are by no means a basic run-of-the-mill band skating by on breakdowns alone. This Will Putney-backed group continues to define the current moment in contemporary metal when it comes to aesthetic, songwriting, and production. Oh What The Future Holds is the common ideal for what extreme music is and is supposed to be at this moment for wider audiences, and it beats whatever Gojira are doing at the moment in that spotlight.
Enterprise Earth – The Chosen
Enterprise Earth’s fourth full-length The Chosen is a hell of a fun time. It’s likely the most wonderfully diverse album of the pack, with these Spokane natives offering something different on each track. These shapeshifters no doubt write some catchy songs, but the versatility in style and delivery is commendable. One minute on “Reanimate // Disintegrate” they’re maneuvering through djenty grooves one might find on a Born of Osiris record (the synths that come and go throughout the record certainly help make these connections), only to catch them later taking wild forays into legitimate thrash metal guitar solo sections on “They Have No Honor” or perhaps channeling Alice In Chains with crooning vocals and clean guitars for the opening moments of “Overpass.” This album has some unwieldy length, but it’s absolutely crammed with good ideas and is surprisingly progressive.
Shadow of Intent – Elegy
This release day was already packed with symphonic influences, but Connecticut’s Shadow of Intent have perfected the symphonic deathcore sound. Elegy perhaps features the most realized and immediately satisfying use of symphonics in deathcore as a whole. The pianos and orchestral synths are more intricate than simple VST pads tacked on after-the-fact and are fully incorporated into the bones of Elegy. Obviously, Elegy is incredibly heavy, but Shadow of Intent take ample opportunity to incorporate tasteful melodies that don’t undo the air of grandiose violence offered throughout. They do lean into it where appropriate though; “Of Fury” takes an apparent influence from Danny Elfman‘s soundtrack work. Guest appearances from Whitechapel’s Phil Bozeman and Testament’s Chuck Billy certainly don’t hurt the record, either.
Worm Shepherd – Ritual Hymns
Hailing from Brokton, MA, Worm Shepherd stand out from their release day brethren by offering a legitimate black metal influence to go along with their symphonic elements. Ritual Hymns, their sophomore LP, hearkens back to last year’s incredible Mental Cruelty record when they’re in full swing, and there’s snarling and squealing breakdowns-upon-breakdowns for those so enamored by the Will Ramos-fronted Lorna Shore comeback EP. Ritual Hymns is sinister, epic, and absolutely disgusting.
If you ask me, there isn’t a bad release out of the bunch. It’s obviously a massive coincidence that these incredible acts dropped new albums on the same day, but it’s hard not to glean some significance here. Let’s make January 14th National Deathcore Day every year, and celebrate how you will. Deathcore bands, plan accordingly for 2023 please. Let’s do it again.
Cream of the Crop
Immolation – Acts of God (death metal)
There are plenty of veteran death metal bands that have released double digit studio albums over the last ~30 years. But when it comes to balancing longevity, consistency, and quality, it’s difficult to find any true competitors for Immolation. Sure, they definitely have peers among the genre’s pioneers, but they mostly check one or two of the aforementioned boxes. After dropping a influential debut or sophomore album, many golden age death metal bands see their discography take one of a few trajectories: a rollercoaster of duds and decent ideas, a slow and steady stream of solid releases, or a sustained decline into mediocrity and/or irrelevance. I’m not going to name names, but I’m sure you can fill in the blanks.
Since Dawn of Possession (1991) and Here In After (1996) put them on the map, Immolation have carved their own path, avoiding a single truly bad album in the process. You could argue that Harnessing Ruin (2005) and Shadows In the Light (2007) aren’t as acclaimed as the rest of their discography, but 1.) they’re markedly better than the output from some of their contemporaries at the time; and 2.) they’re bookended by Close to a World Below (2000) and Majesty and Decay (2010), two of the best death metal albums of their respective decades. Looking through their discography, Immolation might be the only essential death metal band that’s released a classic album in every decade of their career.
Which brings us to Acts of God, an early highlight for 2022 that will undoubtedly remain one of the genre’s best releases of the year. The scheduling of releases certainly plays a factor in our collective response, which is why labels and bands avoid dropping new albums in the holiday rush at the end of the year. In that sense, Acts of God is certainly enjoying a boost from being one of the biggest names (if not the biggest) to drop an excellent album so far in 2022. However, I’d argue the album isn’t receiving praise due to circumstance, but rather, metal fans who’ve always loved their music can now devote a great deal more attention to one of their best albums in years. That’s certainly been my experience.
Jonathan already went in depth about the beefy track list and runtime, so I’ll avoid doing a song-by-song breakdown. Instead, I’ll share my core takeaway that dominated every listen to Acts of God: this is all caps “DEATH METAL” played at peak performance. As you’ve seen in countless Death’s Door columns before (and even below the fold in this month’s roundup), there are no shortage of subgenres at play in modern death metal. “Tech” this and “melo” that and “blackened dissonant prog” whatever, metal fans sure love getting specific (guilty as charged). There’s a reason for that, obviously; if you asked a friend for “death metal” recommendations when you really meant “bands that sound like At the Gates,” you’d probably be disappointed if they gave you a Defeated Sanity album.
With Acts of God, Immolation provides a perfect example of why subgenres aren’t always necessary. In short, when the death metal is this excellent and encompasses everything you want from the genre…then why not just call it what it is? Since my first spin of Here In After and every Immolation album I’ve listened to since, I’m amazed by how well they retain their unique songwriting voice while simultaneously refining their approach and including every facet from the death metal playbook. From dissonance to technicality, from speed to melody, Immolation truly does it all, and Acts of God proves they’re not slowing down anytime soon. Over 30 years since their debut, they’re only continuing to improve.
Best of the Rest
Aethereus – Leiden (technical death metal)
Aethereus is a project I knew next to nothing about before I jumped headlong into Leiden. Which is a damn shame. It’s been four years since they dropped their debut record Absentia, which means that I lived a significant chunk of life without their expert interpretations of progressive and technical death metal in my life. Curses. Curses most profound.
For those as unfamiliar as I was with this group, Aethereus conjure up an expert blend of the above mentioned styles of death metal that never fails to be unique or interesting. Bouncing between crushing riffs, seismic grooves, and delightfully batshit technical noodling, their sophomore offering Leiden is the kind of record that pushes a band into new stratospheres of recognizability. The performances are a particularly commendable mix of wild and accessible, pushing the envelope of what technical death metal can be when it straps itself to a progressive lens.
One of the most impressive features of Leiden is the band’s ability to incorporate seemingly disparate sounds into each track in a manner that feels deeply unexpected and wholly welcome. “Endless Cycle of Rebirth” is a masterclass in balancing Archspire-levels of intensity with jazzy, groove-heavy undertones that eventually morph into meditative soundscapes replete with enough horns and keys to make White Ward fans’ ears perk up. But more than with most bands attempting to blend such sounds, these stylistic shifts feel earned, highlighting the band’s abilities as songwriters. It’s a truly impressive blend of sounds that never feel incongruous or incoherent, making for a thoroughly unpredictable and rewarding listening experience that demands and rewards repeat listens.
I really can’t say enough good things about Leiden. It’s received a fair amount of spins since its release and each new journey through its fantastic sonic world unfolds new revelations that have made it one of my most enjoyable listens of the young year. Check it out if progressive and technical voyages through the wilds of death metal suit your fancy.
Allegaeon – Damnum (technical/melodic death metal)
I’ve already written many a word about this record, so I’ll keep my ramblings shorter and (hopefully) sweeter: Damnum is the best, most cohesive, and thoroughly enjoyable record of Allegaeon’s immensely successful and impressive career. Full stop. The only reason it’s not sitting atop the pack is due to the fact that the literal kings of death metal just released one of the best albums of their legendary career. So… there’s that.
Damnum takes everything that Allegaeon has done well and ramps it up to 11. The instrumentation throughout is simply superb, with Burgess and Stancel delivering some of their best and most nuanced guitar work to date. The real showstopper here, and representative of one of the largest stylistic departures for the band, is Riley McShane’s vocals. Diving far deeper into majestic and powerful cleans than ever, tracks like “Of Beasts and Worms” absolutely soar due to his expert vacillation between harsh and clean styles, giving the music a dynamic range that ultimately feels like a beautiful and natural evolution. The band’s emphasis on acoustic accompaniment also presents a powerful manifestation of their new direction, complementing their traditionally frantic technicality with a lush melodic undercurrent that serves every track it shows up in.
But for all their performative excellence, it’s the enhancements in songwriting technique that steal the show. I’ve listened to this record close to 15 times at this point and I’m continually amazed by the new revelations I uncover with each spin. It’s complex without being inaccessible, cohesive without ever feeling stale, and epic without ever feeling unwieldy. There’s so much to unpack here and I feel supremely confident in stating that this is one of the most impressive and well-executed records I’ve heard in quite some time.
If you’ve been on the fence about Allegaeon, this may be the record to change your mind. If you’ve been a long time fan like myself rest assured that everything that you love about the band is here in spades, only better. A genuinely sensational release.
Devoured Elysium – Void Grave (brutal death metal, technical death metal)
We’re just two months into 2022, and it already feels like an epic year in brutal death metal. Hell, in the last few weeks alone I’ve seen 4-5 albums that I had to listen to the moment they dropped. But sometimes, it’s the unexpected surprises that stand out the most.
Extreme metallers Devoured Elysium are relatively new to the death metal scene, especially when compared to the enormous number of established acts that have released new material over the past year. But the Turkish bandhas already developed a mature sound that artfully incorporates elements of technical death metal with crushing brutality. Their sophomore album, Void Grave, reveals tighter, more aggressive songwriting that showcases their brutality as well as greater range.
Void Grave is inspired by the Doom franchise, yet rather than go the traditional route of adding atmospheric passages as a game tribute, Devoured Elysium nods at it in more subtle touches of synths and samples. It’s noticeable and adds an enjoyable element of surprise to its overall brutality. Heavily downtuned guitars layered over blistering drums further build an energy that certainly evokes the feel of Doom, but maintains the core tenets of brutal death metal. It’s a devastating, creative exercise in storytelling that added a bright spot to the last legs of winter.
WAIT – The End of Noise (progressive death metal)
It’s interesting how someone like Max Phelps, who has played in bands like Cynic and Defeated Sanity, not to mention his own successful projects, can continue to be relatively unknown. I meant, don’t get me wrong; people are certainly familiar with the name. But the quality of output from Phelps across all the projects he has participated in in the last few years has been nothing short of excellent and I don’t feel like the level of respect and attention he receives is on par with that quality. Then again, perhaps that’s what allows him to simply follow his passion and continue to work on bands like WAIT.
WAIT (an acronym for We Are in Tranist) is a band formed by Charlie Eron and Phelps, who quickly added Alex Weber (also of Exist, another Phelps’ project) to their roster and released a promising, self-titled EP back in 2019. It was a good release but perhaps was more of a proof of concept than a fully fleshed out indication of what the band was capable of. Well, The End of Noise, released on the 11th of February, is exactly that sort of indication. The End of Noise is a diverse, complicated and engaging progressive death metal. There’s some of that indelible Phelps mark on this release, drawing comparisons to Cynic and Exist, but everything is filtered through a more grandiose and “open” sort of sound.
This places The End of Noise firmly within a more progressive category, perhaps deserving that moniker more than anything else that Phelps has worked on since the Cynic days. There’s something so effortlessly complex on this release that goes way beyond “just” weird time signatures and your odd, djent influenced syncopation. It’s the ambition and the sheer ground covered by the music, from the depths of death metal on “Earth’s Last Orbit”, containing the album’s most aggressive vocals and vicious grooves, to the more progressive metal epicness of “Reviere”.
Whichever note the album strikes, it does so with confidence and great skill, creating one of the more satisfying releases of the year so far. There’s something majestic here, showing us how fruitful and evocative the marriage between progressive and death metal can really be. Hopefully, another excellent release under his belt will further cement Phelps as one of the more accomplished voices in the metal community today and also shine a light on Eron’s ability to drive the heart of such projects. In the meanwhile, we can enjoy the album “just” for what it is: a fantastic work of progressive death metal.