Welcome to Death’s Door, Hellions. Consider this introduction a slight, informal, er… retraction.
We’ve been talking over the last few entries about the rise of tech death as the prominent strain of death metal over the past several months. In all, this opinion remains steadfast. The majority of the best, most forward-thinking, and memorable records of the last few years have been techy skronk fests, and the old school revival has most certainly taken a backseat when it comes to the critical spotlight. But April felt like a massive hole got blown through that argument through the release of Undeath’s sophomore record. Holy smokes. Talk about a band singlehandedly putting a subgenre on its back. We’ll get into that record in depth below, but suffice it to say that old school death metal’s ability to innovate and destroy in equal measure is far from dead.
So while we aren’t WRONG when it comes to tech and progressive death metal’s current supremacy, my own analysis regarding OSDM’s place in the grander scheme of the genre’s development was… perhaps premature. I submit that I jumped the gun. Forgive me.
And listen to death metal. All of it. Like all the records below. Forever.
Cream of the Crop
Undeath – It’s Time… To Rise from the Grave
As alluded to above, It’s Time… To Rise from the Grave is a Radahn-sized AOE blast across the bow of the current death metal landscape. While the band’s debut was critically acclaimed and received favorable responses from essentially every corner of the death metal world, it also felt a bit like an appetizer hinting at what the band was capable of. Similar to Tomb Mold’s trajectory, it was the second helping that solidified their place among the genre’s elite. Which is exactly where this band belongs. Grave is an absolute triumph in every measurable metric, drinking deeply from the well of death metal’s gory glory days while never failing to look forward, adding exactly the right amount of flair to keep things thoroughly engaging from start to finish. It’s an absolute gem of a record and I’m so happy it exists.
Let’s be clear, though. The reason this album succeeds is because of the riffs. Holy hell the riffs on this thing. From the opening moments of “Fiend for Corpses” to the diabolical final notes of “Trampled Headstones”, this record absolutely bleeds old school songwriting mastery. Where bands like Blood Incantation and the aforementioned Tomb Mold took their core OSDM sound and expanded it into more cosmic vistas, Undeath have taken the Immolation approach of focusing on their core strengths and cranking their effectiveness to 11, as well as their sheer relentlessness. Where Lesions of a Different Kind left some room to breathe in its compositional style, Grave is an absolutely relentless and hyper-violent assault on the senses that leaves the listener reeling upon the first few listens and focuses almost exclusively on the band’s previously established strengths. It’s a hamfisted sequence of Tyson-esque knockout punches that doesn’t relent even once or in the slightest. However, the miracle of Grave is that upon subsequent listens it feels even more melodic, complex, and intricate than their debut, and peeling back the layers of this rotten flower is an experience in and of itself. There are real, focused songwriting chops on display here, which despite the album’s ceaseless brutality take time to create distinct and deliberate sonic variety that creates a more adventurous listen than its already excellent predecessor. In short, it’s the full package.
I was expecting this record to be good, but I was not ready for how thoroughly punishing and relentlessly rewarding it would be. It’s Time… To Rise from the Grave is not only a huge step up and forward for the band, it’s one of the best and most compulsively listenable records of 2022. Period. In the spirit of Kvaen, Undeath have enhanced their songwriting and performative chops while simultaneously creating a record that is an outright blast to listen to. There are few records that can balance dead serious sonic face-smashing with a playful approach, and this release stands tall among those able to attain such a feat. Wouldn’t be surprised to see this reach modern classic status. A truly remarkable release.
Best of the Rest
Epitaphe – II
There are many paths to reach the top of the mountain, that sensation of epic scale that is the aim of so much of metal music. Death-doom is one of the most direct, as the genre channels the massive awe that peaks evoke with every single riff, blending the aggression of death metal and the unbridled mass of doom to conjure up that feeling. However, this also leads to the genre’s main weakness; there’s only so many sweeping cliffs and cloudy summits you can digest before the whole thing starts to get boring. You need to break things up a bit and mix it up, dispelling the lethargy which comes with the genre’s pummeling antics.
Epitaphe are perhaps the ones to accomplish this best in 2022 with II, their latest release. At the end of 2020, the band released I, a much celebrated and effective death-doom album. But it also suffered from the weaknesses I mentioned above and tended to be slightly more one-note than I had hoped for. Fortunately, II presents a flowering of that hope, as the album sees Epitaphe experiment much more with the death-doom formula. The end result is still a massively intense and hefty release but a more nuanced and subtle one, able to explore all sorts of sub-structures and contrasts inside its pulsing, frozen core.
Pointing at a track is a bit pointless, since most of the tracks on the album scrape the twenty mark. But undergoing the journey that is “Celestial”, the first “major” track on the album, is sufficient to encapsulate the magic that is II. The first minutes of the track are about what you’d expect; the riffs are muscular and large, the kick drums go especially hard (and are mixed very interestingly, seeming to “hover” over the rest of the instruments), and the bass is engaging and thick. The first “upset” comes in the form of the verdant, acoustic break in the track. The noise and controlled chaos suddenly make way, as if you’ve come across a peaceful meadow on your trek through the mountain storm.
Of course, the stillness and verdigris are there as contrast, as the more aggressive elements of the music soon return. But they return transformed. Suddenly, everything is much more dynamic; in the ten plus minutes which remain on the track, you will find many departures from the en-masse assault of the opening segments of the track. The drums are more widely flung, with cymbals weaving in and out of the main riffs. There’s plenty of experimentation with time signatures, with both the bass and the guitars breaking up structures and creating unexpected twists and turns. Lastly, epic solos which might remind you of Insomnium or Agalloch are also replete, adding a more atmospheric and sweeping theme to the overall composition.
And this is just one track. There are many more moments, manifestations, and transmutations that Epitaphe undergo on II. Indeed, it is one of the densest and more ambitious albums of the year so far but not “just” in the way you’d usually expect death-doom to be dense. II explores many different approaches to conjuring that elusive feeling of might and enormity, taking the listener on a whirlwind journey that only becomes more dynamic and intense for including respites and resting stops along the way. By the way, I recommend listening to II, at least for the first few times, in one sitting. There’s nothing quite like that experience.
Dischordia – Triptych
Every metalhead has an album or two that they recommend to non-metalhead friends that want to sample the heavier side of music. Perhaps it’s a classic, or a hybrid album that offers just enough rock/folk/punk to entice the friend into further exploring death metal. Whatever it is, Triptych is the complete opposite.
The latest from the Oklahoma-based trio is a dizzying mix of punishingly brutal death metal executed with technical precision and complexity. It’s dense, the type of album that requires an afternoon of staring into the abyss while attempting to process the barely organized chaos raging in your ears. That said, it’s also wildly fun and inventive. Dischordia has fully embraced the abrasiveness of Ulcerate and technicality of Gorguts…but added weird touches that are fully unique, including flute passages that should feel out of place, but blend into an otherwise unforgiving soundscape with surprising fluidity. It’s brutal death metal designed to catch listeners off guard at every turn, both addictively heavy and jarring as the baseline shifts without warning.
Listening to Triptych is an exercise in discomfort, and I mean that in the best way. Even though I’ve had it on repeat for 3 days, I feel like I’ve barely scratched the surface of this outlandish album. But that’s not to say that Dischordia is throwing everything they can at listeners in sheer hope something sticks. On the contrary, the band more than executes on their bold vision, assisted by the excellent mixing and mastering skills of Gorguts’ own Colin Marston. Dischordia is unrelenting, uncomfortable, and unforgiving, but goddamnit, I’m ready for more.