The Zenith Passage – Datalysium (proggy tech death)
Everybody's favourite Faceless offshoot are back (baby!) and genuinely better than ever. The Zenith Passage's 2016 debut, Solipsist, certainly has its fans, but for me it represented tech-death in its most tech-forward and dare I say regressive form. Those itching for Planetary Duality (2008) part two may have been satiated, but I was and remain much more interested in what The Faceless were doing on Autotheism (2012).
Datalysm splits the difference, maintaining the finesse and furiosity of Planetary Duality while also often developing toward more progressive passages that bring Autotheism more readily to mind. Oddly, and even though none of The Zenith Passage's current line-up played (although perhaps contributed?) to Autotheism, it ends up serving as a sort of belated missing link between the two modern death metal masterpieces, that also plays handily into the strengths of both. There are also some more recent references in play, with more than a hint of Archspire's trademark staccato assault creeping into both the vocals and other instrumentation.
Datalysm is an album defined by prominent points of reference. For the first time though, it also feels like The Zenith Passage have ceased being foremost "The Faceless at home" and asserted a distinct identity of their own, once again becoming leaders rather than followers in the process.
Rannoch – Conflagrations (progressive death metal)
If you're looking for a Rivers of Nihil replacement following their recent shenanigans, then have I got the band for you! (Baby!) That band's influence was certainly prominent on Rannoch's previous (and rather outstanding) record Reflections Upon Darkness (2020). There however, they also mixed it in with influences from more prominent progressive death metal staples like Opeth, Gojira and the aforementioned Faceless. Conflagrations, on the other hand provides a pretty direct comparison with Rivers of Nihil's landmark 2018 album Where Owls Know My Name, to the point that opener "Desperate Era" sounds almost identical to the beginning of Owls' "Subtle Change". While we're at it, the start of following track "Prism Black" also sounds strikingly similar to that of Decapitated's "Day 69", and there are plenty of other "homages" littered throughout the record.
Conflagrations might not be the most original of albums, and admittedly seems like a slight simplification following Reflections Upon Darkness. Then again, originality is overrated, and if you're going to steal then you may as well steal from the best, especially if you can pull it off as well as Rannoch do here. If there's another knock to be had against the album, it's that—at 52 minutes—it is rather long, with the hard reset before final, mostly instrumental, seventeen-minute track "Threnody to a Dying Star" being perhaps the one moment when their adherence to Owls' template doesn't serve them as well as it could, even if the track itself is rather impressive and winds up sounding more like Fallujah.
It's perhaps misleading to be so critical of one of my top-picks, but that the worst I can say about Conflagrations is that it reminds me a lot of an album I love and that there could probably be a little bit less of it should also serve as an otherwise glowing endorsement.
Ageless Summoning – Corrupting The Entempled Plane (death metal)
Agriculture – Agriculture (blackgaze, ecstatic black metal)
Ancestral Blood – Forgotten Myths And Legends: Chapter 1 (black metal)
Ancient Crown – Ancient Crown (death metal)
Antioch – Antioch VI: Molten Rainbow (heavy metal, speed metal)
Bad Juju – Blue Heaven (alt rock)
Bloodletter – A Different Kind Of Hell (thrash)
Blutgott – Respawned In Heavy Metal (heavy metal)
Blur – The Ballad of Darren (alt rock, indie pop)
Breaths – Floruit (post black metal)
Cady – Forged From the Sun (screamo, emoviolence)
Carthus – Images Of Tyranny (melodeath)
Cult Of Sobek – Petsuchos (death doom)