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Incantation – Dirges of Elysium

Over a 25-year career, Incantation have earned their share of death metal imitators. The flattery hasn’t come from pushing boundaries. The Incantation of decades ago is still largely the Incantation of today, even if guitarist/vocalist John McEntee has been the lone constant. Instead of blazing a trail, they’ve stayed in one place to perfect their strengths, and in doing so they’ve established and accepted their identity. (After all, the pursuit of supremacy in death metal’s narrow set of virtues is a young man’s game, which is why death metal is a graveyard of young bands.) Incantation know they’ll never be the finest technicians, the fastest players, or the most brutal group in the genre. But they can be Incantation, relying on time-tested songwriting techniques to be one of the rare death metal bands that’s catchy without making compromises.

Dirges of Elysium, Incantation’s 10th full-length, is Incantation through and through. It’s loud. It crawls. It rips. Kyle Severn plays drums not as precise time-keeper, but as one of the trio’s voices. Bassist Chuck Sherwood works hard to be the background support. You often don’t notice him, but when you do it’s for good reason. (The counter-melody he plays on the instrumental title track, for instance.) John McEntee remains one of death metal’s riff geniuses, able to jab with needling tremolos and zoom in on sustained chords. Like his playing, his growl is simple but effective. He grunts with old-school syncopation, picking his spots to put a phrase through the McEntee vocal chord wringer. That patience is his trademark. He knows that in the long run, a well-placed release is better than an album of crescendos that build nothing and go nowhere. After all, he’s been doing this a long time.

When Incantation are on, few death metal bands have greater potential to cut lasting classics. “Portal Consecration” incorporates a wooziness that shredders favoring a sterile exactness would never unearth. “Bastion of a Plague Soul” has psychic link riffs, making you bend when they bend. Plus, the lyrical solo is one of McEntee’s best, bordering on melodic and dissolving into dissonance. And “Carrion Prophecy” has THAT groove, the one inevitably bound for the Incantation mixtape.

These moments resonant more clearly than copy-cats because Dirges of Elysium has a comparatively dry production. The cavern-dwelling outfits that steal this sound commonly hide their flaws under miles of inorganic reverb. Incantation present everything up front, allowing the players the ability to play dynamically. Again, when Incantation is on, this unvarnished, warts-and-all approach works by highlighting McEntee’s total embodiment of death metal.

That said, the production does spotlight the duller moments. Closer “Elysium (Eternity is Nigh)” eats up over 16 minutes of the album’s 49-minute running time. It could use an edit. There’s no reason for it to be so long besides checking the box that, sometimes, Incantation songs are slow. (“From a Glaciate Womb,” with its on-the-rack outro, achieves this better with tighter songwriting.) And that’s too bad, since the proceeding 30 minutes are decent—if not on par with their legacy, at least a welcome reminder that Incantation are really good at being Incantation. In fact, they’re better at it than anyone else.

— Ian Chainey

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