One last go before the deep year end plunge, shall we? It’s Death’s Door. It’s December. Excellence awaits.
Though we sit dangerously close to our year-end bonanza, skipping this column would not have made sense given the sheer scope of fantastic releases that hit our inboxes last month. There are a couple records here that may actually crack my top 10 with limited playtime, which is a fairly rare occurrence for yours truly. November was phenomenal, and it you haven’t heard any of these stellar records yet we highly recommend you change that before you write up your own comprehensive year-end list. They’re good. We swear.
Until we see you for our review of the year that was 2022, stay safe, enjoy your holiday, and listen to death metal.
Cream of the Crop
Disillusion - Ayam
In the world of progressive death metal, Disillusion are the proverbial shoulders of giants that most modern bands in the genre stand upon. Far too frequently, the German titans are overlooked among the likes of Obscura, Alkaloid, Persefone, and Opeth as some of the greatest and most important progressive metal bands working today. With the categorically excellent statement that is Ayam, one can only hope that underappreciation changes. It’s not only one of the best death metal albums of the year, it stands tall above the pack as one of the greatest heavy records of 2022 in any genre, and debatably the single most cohesive and impressive album of the band’s storied career.
In a year of stellar opening statements to albums, “Am Abgrund” may be the most thoroughly electric. Andy Schmidt’s vocal performance here and throughout the record is utterly stellar, blending dark, brooding cleans with legible, brutal growls that ebb and flow with the expert precision one would expect from a grizzled veteran who’s spent decades honing his craft. While more time below will be spent on the universally excellent performances on this record, the opener serves as an overstuffed platter of what listeners can expect throughout the record in regard to songwriting. Each transition from proggy noodling to death metal blasting to synth-heavy Cynic-worship feels cleverly crafted, deeply intentional, and earned. It’s a perfect introduction to the record, and things only grow more gargantuan from here.
But clever songwriting, while the cornerstone of nearly every great album in any genre in existence, is still only part of the equation. The performances need to pull every vital nutrient from what exists on paper, and Disillusion accomplish this feat in spades throughout Ayam. Schmidt, Hupfer, and Haugg’s guitar work glistens and bludgeons with equal tenacity throughout tracks like “Tormento” and “Abide the Storm”, while the percussive section held down by Robby Kranz’s bass and Martin Schulz’s work behind the kit is nothing short of masterful across every inch of this record. It’s a brilliant example of what the successful marriage of musical form and function can look like in the hands of masters, and Ayam never falls short of excellence in this regard. Leave it to another thoroughly excellent production aesthetic and mix, and master by Jens Bogran and Tony Lindgren to pull out every exquisite detail with crystal clarity and delicious amounts of heft.
There really isn’t anything about this record worth levying major criticism toward. It’s a masterclass of progressive, melodic death metal created and executed by obvious masters of their craft. If you thought The Liberation would be the band’s definitive modern statement, it may be time to reevaluate that thought process. Disillusion are among that rare breed of long-standing legends that have only gotten better with age. In every sense, Ayam is a stone cold triumph.
Best of the Rest
Dream Unending - Song of Salvation
Just one year after the celebrated debut of epic death-doom duo Dream Unending (featuring members of Innumerable Forms and Tomb Mold), they’ve returned to grace us with yet another holiday of crushing melancholy and dreamlike whimsy with their sophomore effort Song of Salvation. No sophomore slump here; Dream Unending is now an established entity beyond vanity supergroup (as if there were any question), with a proven well of good ideas and a foundation to build upon their Peaceville-influenced sound (think early releases from acts like Anathema, Paradise Lost, and Katatonia) and grow outwards.
Song of Salvation certainly carries on uninterrupted from the wake of the Tide Turns Eternal debut, with a sonic palette mostly unaltered with a base of melodic funeral doom enlaced with ornate synthesizers and shimmering guitars, with a propensity towards soaring psychedelia a la Pink Floyd or meandering and reverberating post-metal. This time however, things feel more ambitious and grandiose, with the two tracks book-ending the album reaching well beyond the ten-minute mark. Guest musicians also bolster the adventure with some broader ideas; “Secret Grief” for instance features Hour of 13’s Phil Swanson offering a new dimension of clean singing against piano and trumpet. The epic finale “Ecstatic Reign” checks all the boxes in its 16-minute runtime and utilizes McKenna Rae on vocals in a Katatonia-esque passage before an eruption of melodic death metal and expansive progressive death-doom.
It’s a wonderfully cinematic record that builds upon the Dream Unending formula, a ridiculous feat within just one short year of their debut. While we’re all waiting patiently for the new Tomb Mold record, it’s more than just a consolation to be getting such a breadth of material out of this project. Hopefully the trajectory towards more progressive and psychedelic sounds continues for LP3, which may very well come sooner than later at this rate.
Ryth - Deceptor Creator
What does it mean when we highlight the location a band is from? There are many answers to this question, depending on the location being highlighted. If it’s a famous locale for a certain type of music (like, let’s say, Gothenburg), we are trying to associate the specific example with a genre or a sound, preparing the listener for a certain experience (this is also called a synecdoche). If, instead, this location is known for a specific kind of music but the band is making some other sort of music, we are trying to create surprise by highlighting disparity. But let’s be honest: most often, when we highlight a band’s location, we do so because that location doesn’t fit with the very Western-centered (and even eurocentric) perception of metal.
And that perception isn’t wrong; metal is very centered around “the West”, such as it is, and highlighting bands that fall outside of this sphere of influence is important. But I’d like to believe that, mostly, we highlight these bands not because of where they’re from but because their music is downright excellent. That is definitely the case with Ryth who just happen to be from Bahrain but also, and more importantly (I hope), play some incredible progressive death metal. Deceptor Creator was released on the 1st of December (so yes, I am technically cheating by including it here, shut up you’re not my boss) and it features a sort of blackened and progressive death metal that is, well, music to my ears and not just in the literal sense. It has all the flourishes that I love about the style without any of its disadvantages, namely a tendency to fall into the same patterns that genre stalwarts have established decades ago.
For Ryth, perhaps because of the fact that they reside outside of the classical sphere of influence for progressive death metal, there is a hungry and dynamic commitment to experimentation built into Deceptor Creator. “Self Destruct”, the album’s second track for example, opens with a long and well composed intro with the bass guitar at its center. Its lilts, turns, and twists sound sort of like a few bands I could name drop here but also sounds wholly unique, especially when it smashes into the track’s “proper” body, ushered in by an absolutely ruthless “blegh” and a killer riff. Elsewhere, solos elongate, riffs contract and turn on themselves, the vocals draw more inspiration from brutal death metal than anything else but can also burst into beautiful manifestations of clean vocals (check out “White Portrait” for example), and the whole just sounds unique and wholly Ryth’s own.
Perhaps this is because of where they are situated and perhaps it is simply because of the musicians they are (which can also be a result of their location, of course). Regardless, the end result is an incredibly pleasing and intricate album which should set the heart of every lover of death metal at ease.
Indepth - Ancient Architects
There’s a style of death metal that only gets one or two releases each year and it’s that kind of progressive/neo-classical death metal where the fretless bass is really, really loud. You know, First Fragment, Beyond Creation, that sort of good stuff. For me, the sub-genre can really be hit or miss because it takes musicians of a certain caliber to make all of that excess and flair really work instead of collapsing into a heap of pretty notes and nothing else. But Indepth definitely have the writing chops to make the style working, turning Ancient Architects into more than just a bunch of extravagant riffs and over-the-top bass solos. There’s really craftsmanship in the transition, track structures, and overall pace of the album which makes it accessible and still technically impressive, an album you can appreciate but also feel.