Blood Incantation’s “Hidden History of the Human Race” is Death Metal Infinite, Incarnate
Death metal is in a wonderful place in 2019. With new albums from Tomb Mold and Gatecreeper, just to name two others among many, we are witnessing a second golden age for the genre.
It's easy and lazy to refer to these sorts of bands as plain-old OSDM and leave it at that; precisely what makes this such a lazy nomenclatural move is that it truncates the separate albeit similar nuance both of those initial booming years as well as the parallel boom today. After all, what we consider "OSDM proper" includes bands as different as Atheist and Cannibal Corpse, Cynic and Immolation, Demilich and Incantation. Back then, there were bands that were intensely brutal, bands that were atmospheric, bands that were thrashy, bands that bordered on black metal and doom metal and more. The early days of hardcore-flecked death metal and, in turn, death metal-flecked hardcore, were beginning to blossom, creating the OG OSDM we know and revere today.
We see a certain group of, for lack of a better term, haters, i.e. people who seem in no way interested in the fullness of death metal, decrying this current wave of bands for simply aping those older groups. This misses one huge thing: we now see a parallel to that fullness in the crop of today. After all, Sonoran Deprivation isn't exactly terribly similar to Planetary Clairvoyance, is it? And that's just counting two of the big names, not to mention the lush realm populated by the rest.
This brings us to Blood Incantation. The reason for mentioning the other like-minded bands above was deliberate: despite some incredible records from others in the genre, bands like Tomb Mold and Gatecreeper secure themselves at the highest point in the heap, with the only one missing from the current lineage of today's OSDM being Blood Incantation themselves who haven't released a full-length since 2016. A year earlier than that, the band's debut Interdimensional Extinction EP was a potent and deeply intriguing record, one that mixed exceptionally brutal passages with the avant-garde, placing side-by-side the arthouse death metal tendencies of a group like Cynic while still burying them within the lysergic madness of a group like Demilich or the churning techy brutality of a group like Cryptopsy.
The buzz from the debut EP crested to a wave by the time their full-length debut, the already-classic Starspawn, dropped. By delivering Starspawn to our ears, an album that managed to seamlessly blend dense passages with airy and atmospheric ones, managed to do tech-death without sounding too clinical and brutal death metal without sounding too muddy. Blood Incantation had placed themselves in the conversation regarding not just of greatest death metal bands of the decade, but of all time.
The burden, however: Blood Incantation only had one record. While Gatecreeper similarly only had one record until very recently, they had a proper commercial push that gave them greater and greater touring success, whereas Blood Incantation seemed to linger much deeper underground. It helps, of course, that we can potentially view this as the third Blood Incantation record, not counting their EP, given that the lineup of Blood Incantation is precisely the same as death-doom group Spectral Voice save for a drummer swap. Taking that Spectral Voice record into account, we have an image of a band that is deft and capable of balancing some difficult avant-garde passages, be they dissonant or technical or deeply abrasive, with hooks and momentum. It is a terrible secret that it's easier to write a long song than we sometimes make it out to be, but the success of Blood Incantation's longform writing on "Vitrification of Blood (Part 1)," the 13-minute opening song from their debut, did not bank on its length but rather the numerous riffs that felt like they built on each other into a breathing and organic aesthetic and emotional arc.
So, to say that anticipation for Hidden History of the Human Race, the group's second full-length, was highly anticipated amounts to a vast understatement. Other OSDM bands have delivered killer records, for sure, more than enough to hang your hat on as a fan of the genre defending its contemporary work against its rightly-lauded historical documents; still, there is still a sense that Blood Incantation could make or break that feeling. There is an air of specialness to Blood Incantation that is hard to define, either as a fan or a critic.
The most succinct thing that could be said about Hidden History of the Human Race is that it delivers on the promise of Starspawn, seeing no major changes to the band's sound or ethos because, well, none are needed.
It helps, of course, that there was a three-year span between that last record and this one. Where Tomb Mold needed the bigger shift in sound between Manor of Infinite Forms and Planetary Clairvoyance, both excellent progressive OSDM records in their own right, Blood Incantation let their works breathe a bit more and also get their urge for experimentation out of their system via other bands like the aforementioned Spectral Voice. The fact that both Starspawn and Hidden History of the Human Race are so brief, not only hovering closer to the 30-minute mark but also doing so in five and four tracks respectively, combined with the three-year wait, makes their uncanny similarity substantially more bearable. It helps as well that Blood Incantation know how to pace a record so that those 30-ish minutes feel meaningful and complete by their end.
You probably want more, sure, absolutely in fact, and so do I, but there is also a sense that the aesthetic goal of that collection of songs has actually completed its task by the end, so the desire for more comes more from intense satisfaction rather than a sense of being artistically or experientially blue-balled. Hidden History of the Human Race orders itself in inverse from its predecessor, taking Starspawn's death metal epic that sets the listener up to barrel in progressively more brutal and visceral tracks toward its end, flipping that on its head, and instead easing the listener up gently toward more and more sophisticated waters.
Album opener "Slave Species of the Gods" dives headlong into gross riffs and blasts before switching up into a groove that feels more akin to Atheist albeit with a deeper and more cavernous growl. Blood Incantation have clearly studied their tech-death records and have internalized well one of the great lessons that for a stretch was lost on certain bands of the subgenre: the necessity for an amount of rawness to give some toothsomeness and some meat to riffs that are otherwise designed to be extreme metal calculus. There is no shortage of grooves or variations on riffs here, with brief passages even resembling the modern and itself more tech-leaning era of Cannibal Corpse from about the turn of the century forward.
Second track "The Giza Power Plant" draws the most from Morbid Angel and early Gorguts, feeling deeply at home with that world of extended techniques married to impossibly nasty grooves. Blood Incantation produce an atmospheric death metal that achieves itself not via synth patches a la Nocturnus or grinding post-metal a la Ulcerate but instead on a precisely balanced amount of reverb, riffs that open up for some air the precise right amount to let that reverb make the notes swell. The band's separate existence of sorts as Spectral Voice is most clearly shown on this song, the slower pace and intense focus on production for that death-doom project clearly teaching them valuable lessons about producing atmospherics that don't devolve into self-parody.
"Inner Paths (To Outer Space)" is, in brief, death metal by way of Rush including a riff that feels almost directly plucked from Lifeson's guitar during the writing of Hemispheres, a classic move in the annals of progressive and technical extreme metal and one that once more works wonders. It is strange, of course, that this wasn't the album opener, given the way the ending of "The Giza Power Plant" segueing into the opening of this track produces several unbroken minutes of mellower mood whereas opening the record here would provide a gentler ramp upward. The intent, pacing-wise, seems to be to use this track as an instrumental palette cleanser before the epic 18-minute album closer, and insofar as it creates that separation and functions as a kind of psychic reset before that more comprehensive ode to the deep influence of Rush's late 1970s work within death metal. Likewise, placing it next to a track that can quite admirably be called a deliberate parallel to "Cygnus X-1" does at least keep the record more tightly bound, like to like.
The album closer, the aforementioned 18-minute epic "Awakening from the Dream of Existence to the Multidimensional Nature of Our Reality (Mirror of the Soul)" is shockingly the most brutal track on Hidden History of the Human Race. This sets up an interesting point about Blood Incantation, arguably the thing that makes them almost implacably the most special of this current crop of death metal bands. Each of the other bigger groups have a sense of identity, some easily graspable position between the varying poles of progressive, technical, no-frills, and OSDM flavors. Blood Incantation however, more so than all of the others, seem intent to seize up not one but all of these spaces, such that it becomes hard to describe them in brief. They are progressive, yes, and deeply so, but they also have moments of shockingly fast and brutal blasts with harshly picked riffs that feel closer to a hardcore beatdown than prog. They are technical, absolutely, but are just as likely to snap your neck with a sick two-step. There is atmosphere but they also know when to suck all the air out and hit you with nothing but riffs. Describing their epics is similarly difficult because the band sees fit to pull out all the stops, with this album closer being their most conceptually dense song to date.
The only immediate comparison that comes to mind is Timeghoul and their similarly dense and cinematic but also incredibly brutal and evil death metal epics near the close of their career. But then a Tangerine Dream synth arpeggiator kicks in and the comparison falls apart and Blood Incantation hit you with a climbing triumphant harmonized guitar lead that sinks immediate and deep into the kind of deep almost blackened tremolo groove Immolation love to play, and you look at the track time and realize you aren't even halfway through.
Blood Incantation's epics most clearly underscore why this band is so very special. If the success of this current golden age of death metal, one I would argue is producing work at or above the level of the classics, is able to do so precisely because it seems to know exactly what to embrace and exalt and what to spruce up, then Blood Incantation is every band covering every corner of classic death metal all at once. Other groups have pockets within the style that they have mastered and do well and records by Horrendous, Tomb Mold, Gatecreeper, and the like will one day (likely sooner than their detractors would like to admit) enter into the great canon of death metal. But Blood Incantation, somehow, were already there, with Starspawn cementing itself instantaneously into the death metal lexicon in a way that is at once undeniably true and incredibly difficult to describe even to an insider let alone an outsider.
This success is ultimately because of Blood Incantation's incredible competence in almost every permutation of death metal under the sun, from melodic death metal to brutal death metal to technical death metal to progressive death metal to no-frills Swedeath and more and more, an encyclopedic mastery of the greatest genre of heavy metal that seems to flow effortlessly via conduits of a stack of great records and an undeniably huge amount of DMT.
One could discuss the psychedelic cosmicism of this record, but that would feel reductive unless it was done with depth and care. What matters here is Blood Incantation didn't change a single thing on Hidden History of the Human Race because they didn't need to. They have inexplicably mastered death metal as a form; all they needed to do was produce more. They did. Hidden History of the Human Race is paradoxically no different from their rightly universally acclaimed debut and yet substantially better because it confirms the feeling of pure faith that propelled that debut to instant canonical status. Blood Incantation simply get it in that magical, impossible way that all the greats do, and while they are current peers with a rack of greats, they are as of this record at the very top of the mountain.
Hidden History of the Human Race is, for me, hands-down the greatest record of the year. However, this position of greatness was once held by both Tomb Mold and Horrendous, and with neither of their output slacking at all since they broke through it is not impossible to see them seeing this as an invigorating challenge to produce even more exceptional music. Which brings out the final positive of this record: in a world where fans and artists can be divided on whether a particular subgenre of extreme metal is capable of producing good work at all or stale and for old-heads only, Blood Incantation sees past that and produces a work that is so profoundly celebratory of the style and its millionfold sub-styles and incredible bands and records that, through their kaleidoscopic psychedelic eyes, one sees only the beautiful possibilities that lay in death metal's future regardless of the sub-domain in which it arises.
Hidden History of the Human Race releases tomorrow via Dark Descent Records.