In the Vicious Realms of Death Metal, Bloodbath Excels at “Survival of the Sickest” (Interview)
As the world shifts and turns, and inevitably produces one unsettling experience after another, so too does death metal. It’s been a hallmark of the genre since Chuck Schuldiner picked up a BC Rich, and continues to be the guiding light behind it. The seduction of the grinding tones, relentless pressure, and focus on the depth of humanity’s morality that embody death metal are what sustain it. Hell, it could easily be argued that death metal exists because of the ceaseless march of life in the face of existential adversity. Perhaps that’s why, then, that death metal is having such a time in the sun recently with wider audiences; as the world continues to grapple with the reality of the damage done by the worst global health crisis in a century, many are turning to that emblematic honesty about the grim nature of humanity that only death metal seems to provide.
Upon seeing the artwork for Survival of the Sickest, the new album by death paragons Bloodbath, vocalist Nick Holmes had a reaction similar to the one many are having about the current death metal revival: “fuck me, it’s 1987 again.”
“I remember Anders [Nystrom, lead guitar, original member] said he wanted to go proper old school death metal with the cover, and when I saw it I completely went back in my head to Scream Bloody Gore and when that was released.”
Of special note for Holmes, and likely the same for any other enthusiast of death metal’s aesthetics, was the bright blue tone of the title font and Bloodbath logo on the cover by industry legend Wes Benscoter (Autopsy, Mortician, Sinister): “You never would’ve guessed it, but it’s tipping the hat to the days gone by.”
It’s a wonderfully inadvertent admission by Holmes to the exact nature of Bloodbath’s allure; Bloodbath sounds, looks, acts and is even composed of musicians considered classic. A veritable knight in shining armor for the genre, but one appropriately weathered and generously caked in gore. The credibility associated with the parts of Bloodbath’s sum lends credence to each and every nod to the classics they engage in, because, as fate would have it, they were there as it happened.
“We aren’t reinventing the wheel, that would be ridiculous.” says Holmes. “You can still wear your influences on your sleeve and make good music. You don’t necessarily have to try to be anything that you’re not. And if you do I think people are going to see through it anyway.”
Survival of the Sickest’s first track and single “Zombie Inferno” is emblematic to that sort of genuine inspirational transparency, as it roars to life following a disharmonic intro with a riff unmistakably torn from the mid-1980s. “It’s a cross between Death and Beneath the Remains by Sepultura” explains Holmes, who co-wrote the track with Bloodbath’s newest member, guitarist Tomas Akvik. Incidentally, Akvik penned the ear worm of a riff, bound to become a staple of the group’s live act, with both genre progenitors specifically in mind, further demonstrating the earnest attention Bloodbath pay to death metal’s backbone.
Holmes, Nystrom, and bassist and original member Jonas Renkse share the credit for the the rest of the album’s tracks, and the result is a Bloodbath effort more dynamic and more current than the band has ever sounded, while still clinically balancing between innovation and strict adherence to the band’s North Star, the first wave of death metal. Incidentally, this is most evident on the track primarily written by Akvik, where the charging guitar attack reminiscent of both the inimitable Slayer and upstart thrash acts such as Enforced gives way to a much more Swedish-sounding, harmonic bridge, immediately signaling Nystrom and Renkse’s handiwork. Holmes has his say in the matter a short time later during “Putrefying Corpse”, where his vocal delivery evokes not just Bloodbath’s present, but their past and his own work with his primary project, UK’s Paradise Lost.
And if on cue, another UK legend in Barney Greenway of Napalm Death lends guest vocals on a surprising and thrilling d-beat inspired passage on the same track, which quickly gives way back to Bloodbath’s signature melancholic, pounding growl. It is positively acrobatic in certain moments how Bloodbath seemingly effortlessly move from section to section of each track, and not to be outdone, drummer Martin Axenrot, also of Opeth, repeatedly puts his signature mystifying touch all throughout Survival of the Sickest, with particular attention paid to the masterful fills and cymbal work on “Dead Parade”, “Malignant Maggot Therapy” and “Born Infernal”. The last of which features the second guest appearance, this one from Luc Lemay of Gorguts. Lemay also guests on the following track “Carved”, with Marc Grewe of Morgoth sharing vocal responsibilities on “To Die”, rounding out Bloodbath’s conscious effort on Survival of the Sickest to keep their process collaborative.
“That’s what I love about it, each person brings their own flair, and with three or four people writing, it shows in the mix,” said Holmes. As if this wasn’t demonstrated enough already, it’s “To Die” that stands out in the album's middle portion, functioning as a mid-tempo crowd pleaser with Holmes and Grewe’s call-and-response vocal arrangement certain to play well at the festival grounds Bloodbath is known to circuit. The album concludes with Bloodbath’s most ambitious track in years in “No God Before Me”, written by Renkse and heavily evocative of Bloodbath’s last recording with Opeth’s Mikael Akerfeldt on vocals, 2008’s EP Unblessing of the Purity. The track leans heavily on Holmes’ strengths, featuring the first instances of clean singing ever heard from the band, while still maintaining the eeriness requisite for Bloodbath’s approach.
“We’ve got enough history in this music to do it, and do it well. And ultimately it’s about having passion for it,” said Holmes, “and have fun with it. I know it’s not very ‘death metal’ to have fun, but it still helps!”
Bloodbath are unquestionably a band about passion, and with Survival of the Sickest, their sixth full length album, they prove it yet again, and do it while clearly having about as much fun as someone can while making art dedicated to exploring the unsavory parts of life.
Survival of the Sickest releases September 9th via Napalm Records.