Welcome once more to Death’s Door, Hellions. What a month it’s been.
While, in my opinion, 2022 may not have yet unleashed the kind of genre-breaking manifestation as we received with last year’s Ad Nauseam release (though the new Aeviterne comes awfully close to breaking that ceiling), looking back on the year thus far as we approach the winter months in the United States I can’t help but be impressed. There has been an absolute treasure trove of incredibly high quality releases over the past several months, and September was no exception. What a fantastic crop of releases in an already stellar year. There’s diversity and quality galore, and we’re excited to share our favorites from the month with you.
As always, send us your favorites that we may have missed. It’s been a wild year, and we’re ever willing to get your perspective on what death metal excited you last month. Let’s get to it.
Death metal forever.
Cream of the Crop
Fallujah - Empyrean
Would it be uncouth to call Empyrean a comeback record even though Fallujah never really went anywhere? It’s complicated. The progressive and atmospheric death metal act, who captured hearts and minds with the absolutely stunning Dreamless in 2016, has since undergone a flurry of lineup changes and disruptions. Founding vocalist Alex Hoffman left the band a year later, and the band picked up known associate Anthonio Palermo of Underling for the controversial Undying Light, which was a massive departure and stylistic risk that saw the band landing closer to a Misery Signals style of metalcore than the tech death they were known for.
Call Undying Light whatever you may – a misstep, a purging of ideas, or a well-intentioned experiment – but within the Fallujah discography, its role as a transitional record is increasingly evident and at least offered development of the band’s sonic spaces where combining technical death metal with floaty ambient prog had been a delicate balancing act that took over a decade for Fallujah to fully finesse. Further lineup disruptions left founding guitarist Scott Carstairs and drummer Andrew Baird the sole remaining members, and in these trying times, the band managed to pick up session bassist Evan Brewer and Kyle Schaefer of one-man band Archaeologist on vocals for further explorations of the sound that they had been building towards with Dreamless and 2014’s breakout The Flesh Prevails. The final product, Empyrean, just so happens to take the mantle as the band’s best work to date.
Empyrean is the return of that warm and familiar Fallujah sound we’ve always wanted, where lush ambient guitar layers and fusion-esque solos glide over impossibly tight and intricate tech death rhythms. It’s intensely melodic without putting the death metal on the backburner, with a new slew of career-best tracks like “Radiant Ascension” and “Embrace Oblivion” that add to the collection of Fallujah classics like “The Void Alone” and “Carved From Stone”, buoyed not only by returning guests Tori Letzler and Katie Thompson providing a feminine ethereal energy during choruses (a patented Fallujah trick that seemingly never gets old), but also by Schaefer’s performance as a vocalist himself, upping the ante on the band’s clean vocal delivery. The penultimate instrumental “Celestial Resonance” is certainly flashy enough in its seven minute runtime to please the prog and tech heads beyond the shimmering dreampop choruses, which doesn’t hurt at all.
Empyrean is everything you could possibly want out of a Fallujah record and positions them atop the field of the greater progressive death metal genre as a band that have now proven that Dreamless wasn’t a fluke, and that their unique blend of sounds is still being mastered and pushed forward in interesting new directions. Many acts at Fallujah’s level are content with following in the steps of Opeth or trying their hand at the cool 7/8 riff Obscura did two decades ago, but it’s evident that Fallujah are forging a path of their own, to stellar results.
Best of the Rest
Autopsy - Morbidity Triumphant
In the heap of early death metal legends, Oakland outfit Autopsy are, in my humble estimation, severely underrated. With two unequivocal masterpieces in Severed Survival and Mental Funeral under their belts, they’d honestly have enough to coast into the death metal annals among the best to ever do it. But in similar fashion to their east coast counterparts Immolation, the band has not released a bad album across their 30 year career. In fact, one could go as far as to say that the band hasn’t released a record that didn’t straddle the line between good and great. They’re a superior force in the death metal world that has few rivals, and their ninth full-length release Morbidity Triumphant does nothing to damage their sterling reputation as worthy apostles of the old school death metal gospel.
The above comparisons to Immolation make sense in 2022 given the fact that both bands are at the top of their game this late into their career. However, a genuine diagnosis of Autopsy’s sound both historically and contemporaneously would place them squarely in the gore-obsessed left field of death metal with the likes of early Death and Cannibal Corpse. Autopsy peddle the filthiest of the filthy when it comes to sonic punishment, and their latest album is no exception. Morbidity Triumphant is absolutely overstuffed with the kind of nastiness that few death metal bands have been able to perfect. Whether you’re a fan of the angular doomy-ness of “Flesh Strewn Temple” or the chunkiness of “Born in Blood”, there’s plenty for every death metal lover, all expertly performed and produced.
A few years ago Scott and I wrote up a piece on the unwarranted love given to mediocre old school releases at the expense of newer and more interesting released from younger bands. While I stick by that criticism today, it would be hard to state that death metal’s legends don’t deserve all the deserved love we can give them in 2022. Along with Acts of God, Morbidity Triumphant is as good as anything this band has released in the past 20 years, showcasing Autopsy as a continued force to be reckoned with in the genre. All hail the underrated kings of gore. Welcome back.
Phobophilic - Enveloping Absurdity
Blatant worship of the forefathers has, for good and ill, been an evergreen staple of modern death metal. Hell, we even have an entire sound and subgenre to classify it. OSDM, with its fuzzy, garbled guitars, warbled drumming and vocals belched from the seventh circle of hell, is a staple and mainstay in the world of death metal, with revivalist bands occupying a hefty chunk of the release schedule each month. Phobophilic and their fantastic debut record Enveloping Absurdity most certainly fall into the above old school camp, and it’s glorious.
There are a fair few founding death metal bands that get a significant amount of shine when it comes to modern emulation. Phobophilic have chosen their kneeling place at the shrine of Incantation, and Enveloping Absurdity stands tall as a death metal record that pulls inspiration from this sound with supreme effectiveness. The riffs are catchy, aggressive, and molasses-infused, lurching forward with magnitude and purpose. On a more modern front, Phobophilic come across as a potent mix of Undeath and Mortiferum, splitting the difference between old school feral nastiness and doom-laden dISEMBOWELMENT worship. But that isn’t to infer that what Phobophilic are peddling lacks a distinct flavor all its own, because it certainly does. In a similar vein of what Malignant Altar did to Morbid Angel’s discography, Enveloping Absurdity is a faithful reinterpretation of a well-loved sound that feels distinct yet familiar. “Nauseating Despair” is a perfect example of this blend, vacillating between old school doomy-ness and more modern compositional choices (especially in the solos) with ease.
If you enjoy OSDM, there isn’t a world where I don’t strongly recommend Phobophilic’s scintillating debut. Top to bottom, the band have crafted something that honors death metal’s past without forgetting exactly where it sits in the modern pantheon of bands dipping into the past. It’s distinct enough to feel unique, reverent enough to inspire nostalgic bliss, and heavy enough to break a hole through your head. It’s what old school death metal should be, and I love it.
Revocation - Netherheaven
Revocation is a band that seems like it’s had more ups and downs than it actually has. While recent records Great Is Our Sin and The Outer Ones were more controversial releases in their impressive catalog, it’s my humble and deeply personal opinion that Revocation has never done anything but slap to high heaven. There are few, if any, death metal bands that have blended the staple sounds of the genre with prog and thrash elements with as much skill over the past 15 years, and Netherheaven sees the band leveling up once again, unleashing one of their most cohesive, technically astute, and devastating salvos to date.
While 2018’s fantastic The Outer Ones saw the band fully on their prog shit, Netherheaven emphasizes the band’s technical chops to a more intentional and alarmingly competent degree. These tracks blaze across the ear drums with maximal intensity and technicality, leaving little room to catch your breath. It’s a record fundamentally replete with technically astounding moments that remind us exactly how talented Dave Davidson and co. truly are. “Diabolical Majesty” kicks things off in style by putting the instrumentals front and center in all their chunky, fuzzed-out glory before hurtling directly into a thrashy verse that perfectly reintroduces us to the band’s signature sound. It’s a relentless barrage that feels like a jab, left hook, uppercut combo to the frontal cortex and gives you a near-perfect sense of what the rest of the album has in store.
Netherheaven serves as a fantastic amalgamation of everything Revocation does well and then some. It’s as fierce and catchy as anything released by The Black Dahlia Murder coupled with a technical proficiency that rivals bands like Allegaeon, culminating in a stirring and fundamentally enjoyable sound that feels distinctly and perfectly their own. Netherheaven is simply fantastic from start to finish and places the band easily near the top of the modern death metal pile. A truly noteworthy release.
Vermin Womb - Retaliation
While human suffering poet laureate Ethan Lee McCarthy may be best known for his work with Denver doom bringers Primitive Man, his deathgrind outfit Vermin Womb is a no less potent (albeit infinitely faster) expression of his creative ethos. While their obliterative 2016 debut Decline made waves in the scene, the project never quite took on the scene-altering import that Primitive Man has enjoyed since the release of Scorn. Their sophomore effort Retaliation aims to change that in a blistering, utterly scathing 18 minutes of pure, unfiltered audio destruction. May the metal world be put on notice: Vermin Womb are releasing the most intense deathgrind on the planet and there’s not a single thing you can do to stop them.
In keeping with many such albums in this space of extreme music, Retaliation is best viewed as a single piece with contiguous chapters as opposed to a collection of individual tracks. Each composition bleeds mercilessly into the next in a genuinely relentless barrage of manic intensity that will genuinely stop listeners in their tracks. It’s impossible to think of anything else while listening to this album. It’s immediate, gripping, and absolutely bananas. While McCarthy has always been a wildly underrated musician, his guitar work is matched completely by the absolutely insane drumming, which treats the kit with the type of violence and contempt that may be considered illegal in several states and most provinces. The musicianship on display by all members involved here is truly absurd, compelling repeat listens just to try and figure out what the hell is going on. It’s a blistering assault on the senses unlike anything I’ve heard this year.
I was fortunate enough to see this album premiered and performed in full alongside Mortuous, Full of Hell, and Blood Incantation in Denver a few weeks back and the band’s performance only further confirmed this record’s palpable ability to engender discomfort and wrath. Retaliation is a picture perfect example of the extremes deathgrind can reach, and is one of the purest manifestations of the genre I’ve heard in some time. Not for the weakly dispositioned, Vermin Womb have with their sophomore record manifested audio violence in a manner worthy of commendation. Utterly filthy stuff.
An Abstract Illusion - Woe
Progressive death metal was not my gateway into metal but it was my gateway into the harsher, more extreme styles of metal. Up until I first heard Opeth, I was sure that all of death metal was just mindless grunting and pointless, technical masturbation. But hearing Ghost Reveries for the first time, and then expanding the scope of my listening to acts like Cynic, Death and Edge of Sanity opened me up to the potential of the more varied and less obvious sides of the genre. This also led me to go back to listen to classic death metal and appreciate the genre for its unparalleled expression of the aggression at the basis of all of metal.
However, in the past few years my interest in the genre has subsided, mostly because progressive death metal bands, for me, tend to fall into two categories: either too married to the tropes of progressive death or too distant from them, unable to awaken the sense of wonder that the sub-genre used to evoke in me. But there are exceptions, like Fallujah’s latest work and Iapetus’ criminally underrated releases. And now, there is An Abstract Illusion, whose album Woe is a veritable masterclass in what progressive death metal work. That is, put succinctly and briefly, a balance between tight compositions that keep the listener engaged and clever progressions of those compositions to places that will keep the listener surprised.
It’s a tough balance to strike but An Abstract Illusion cleave to it masterfully. “Slaves”, the first “proper” track of the album is a fantastic example. The main riffs and vocals which fuel the track’s momentum are very economically written; every flourish is there to elicit an emotional response, to build on the track’s central theme. The band hardly strikes any note that is there just for the sake of more notes, for showing off or for technicality’s sake. This keeps the music on track (get it) and the listener always “aware of their surroundings”, situated within the song’s structure. But, and this is the hard part, An Abstract Illusion introduces plenty of surprises and left-of-field moments to keep the composition from falling into monotone. Whether it is the piano flourishes early on in the track, the unexpected neo-classical trappings of the outro solo, or simply the tempo changes in the middle of the track, “Slaves” keeps you guessing at key moments, making sure you stay listening actively.
The rest of the album does it on the macro level by introducing beautifully somber wind instruments, clever transitions, and leitmotifs, making sure that freshness is maintained throughout. This makes Woe an album you can listen to in one sitting, as progressive masterpieces are meant to be listened to, but also an album you can easily choose tracks from or come across them on shuffle and not regret a second. It is truly an incredibly balanced album, fusing all of the essential elements of both progressive metal and death metal into a form which elicits me the same kind of child-like enthusiasm I had when I was first getting into this genre.