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We are often confronted with a specific critical rubric, one that privileges pure novelty over execution. It's the kind of thought pattern that punishes groups for too clearly sounding connected to the ideas of other groups, the kind that accuses groups of nostalgia-aping, and that tends to view comparative comments as a sign of disrespect or at least a sign that a group doesn't quite have an identity of their own yet. This mode, of course, does also have some positives: there is a real non-zero value to the groups that break new ground, either founding entirely new genres, or, more frequently, bringing fresh approaches and new concepts to older genre grounds.

This is, after all, a big part of the adoration of groups like Venom, Possessed, and Helloween, citing not just the quality of their work (each of those groups having absolute landmark releases) but also the discrete historical value of feeling like the eruptive moment of something. This mode goes on further, offering some of the reasons why certain bands are so well-beloved, not always for creating an entirely new genre but for adding a specific key element or arrangement of elements in a style that becomes a touchstone for works to follow.

But the problem, of course, is that most bands and even most excellent bands, let alone records, tend to be works that focus less on purely breaking new ground and more on executing the ideas already made available. Cryptic Shift's debut Visitations From Enceladus, released earlier this month, is a wonderful contemporary example of this thought.

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That approach would miss something tremendous about Visitations From Enceladus, which is the strikingly high bar of execution of these ideas. It's true, perhaps, that Cryptic Shift aren't purely interested at least on their debut of generating something fully separate from what has come before, but given the quality of these results combined with the fact that holy shit, this is only a debut, it still remains astounding. Debuts, after all, should be judged on a slightly different rubric anyway: they are more often than not the generative seeds of a group, a sketch of a starting point and not necessarily an ending point. Groups like Death are prime examples of the potential wild evolution of a group from their debut and the potential to be found there, while Cannibal Corpse on the other end show the potential value of perpetual refinement and fine-detail attentions rather than macroscopic evolutionary shifts.

Visitations From Enceladus is a record that any decent band going right now would be proud to have as their fifth, their tenth, their 15th release.

The album opens with a 26-minute progressive death metal epic in six movements titled "Moonbelt Immolator." Given the sci-fi conceit, it's hard not to feel valences of Rush given the landmark influence records such as 2112 and Hemispheres have on progressive metal in specific, nor can we deny the link to recent tendency to sci-fi tinged progressive death metal epics in groups such as Blood Incantation. Cryptic Shift are clearly uninterested in merely settling for similarity, however. Their approach to death metal in general is far more in touch with the technical thrash metal characteristics of the earliest wave of progressive death metal -- frantic sci-fi riffing, but clearly passed through the filter of all the lessons of contemporary death metal. The six movements on this opening song have quite a bit of separation, more than you might initially expect, really leaning into the sense that this is six discrete movements rather than a single macroscale song with merely broken subsections of lyrics. This is an arrangement approach to large-scale prog epics that we've unfortunately seen slip away in recent years, at least in bigger records, where the focus has seemed to tilt more toward through-composed evenly segued large-scale passages.

There's something about Cryptic Shift's approach that screams prog, as in the classics of prog-rock, that a single long-form thought doesn't always connote. The more clear separations of movements works to their favor here; the shorter units of the song feel more like complete thoughts with fully-realized and developed arcs that link one into the next. In another world, this epic could have been released as an EP with each movement separated as a full track and the praises sung would still be the same: the emotional logic and sense of breath and pacing to the discrete units is wonderfully balanced, producing a strong overall effect while still allowing you to more fully focus and take in the details of the movements despite its girthy length which may seem intimidating or opaque from the outside.

This makes those spans and the holographic intent of the longer structure much more immediately graspable on just one or two listens as opposed to the at times double-digits play counts to decode others. And, it should be noted, Cryptic Shift do this all without sacrificing the tasty sense of density and intense dance of notes we expect and crave from great technical and progressive thrash and progressive death metal.

Also worth noting are Cryptic Shift's chord choices throughout the three shorter tracks that follow the massive opener. You don't need to know anything about music theory to note them, either; there's a suspicious sense of beauty and openness to the chords, a brightness and deftness. Cryptic Shift are clearly unafraid of dissonance, but their sense of how to play with dissonance and consonance is more sophisticated and deeply pleasing than just stringing an endless parade of diminished and ugly-sounding chords one after another. These are dissonances that hover in just the right place for just the right amount of time, then resolve into intriguing resolutions. Cryptic Shift have clearly paid close attention to the greats, especially the ones that get more adventurous with elements like the lengths of their chord progressions and the choices they make along the way. This is a perfect place to take notes from the masters as you get ideas and sounds under your fingers; given how bursting with life these songs are, it almost gives you heart-palpitations thinking of the places this group could go with their songwriting.

Because that's what the three shorter songs really showcase. This is not meant as a sleight to the big epic, which is also a commanding piece of music that frankly makes me (as a big prog and death metal guy) grin from ear to ear in childlike glee. But it would be a completely different sensation if the group was only commanding in those big stretches and couldn't hack it in the smaller ones. There are a few groups who will go unnamed where this could be said, where the sheer monumentalism of their songs and number of ideas they cram into them is what makes them work rather than necessarily any discrete sense of pacing or development that becomes much more starkly apparent in a short timeframe.

Cryptic Shift, though, absolutely shines on the three shorter pieces that conclude the record. The first, "(Petrified In The) Hypogean Gaol," features a solo about halfway through that is one of the most beautiful I've heard of the year -- it then transitions through a set of sonic ideas for the final few minutes that feel at times almost more like progressive post-hardcore, mathy and bright and beautiful, but delivered with the same thrashing and unifying intensity. The song that follows, "The Arctic Chasm," has a number of riffs with a mid-tempo pulse that makes me tilt my head down, sneer with premium stank face, and headbang at my desk, even more than a dozen listens in. The songs on Visitations from Eneladus are filled to the brim with these types of moments.

The songs themselves are no doubt stacked with riffs and ideas, bringing to mind the famous proclamatory stickers of old tech-thrash albums at the peak of that style declaring how many riffs the record contained, but they are so well-balanced and well-incorporated with each other that you rarely get the sense that the band is going for sensory overload in lieu of strong songwriting. This is in strong contrast to Cryptic Shift's earlier EP Beyond the Celestial Realms, as well as the subsequent stand-alone single "Cosmic Dreams." That earlier material, while still strong, was written a number of years ago, a gap readily apparent by the punctuated equilibrium of their songwriting chops.

Each element of Visitations From Enceladus is an improvement on that material, from their raw technical chops to their melodic choices to their chord choices to their songwriting. Unmentioned thus far are their vocals, which burst with character, refusing to drop into a monotonous low growl or formless hardcore bark, instead having the mellifluous and multi-faceted character that makes great death metal vocals so goddamn charismatic. Likewise, the drums are played with a great balance of sophistication and power, having a great movement between d-beats and blasts and figure work and more cinematically attuned rock and prog beat patterns. The guitars are, of course, absolutely shredding, with face-melting solos delivered with grit and tough-and-tight downpicked thrash chugs and death metal atonal riffs delivered with sensitivity and grace. The bass is sadly buried just a bit too much in the mix to get a lot of details, but when it cuts through, it reveals intelligently composed and energetically performed parts nonetheless.

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We have been tremendously lucky these past few years in the world of death metal, from the old-school death metal revolution to inventive and exciting work in the world of the avant-garde. Some may be burned out by the seemingly perpetual praise of groups like Blood Incantation and Tomb Mold and, while I certainly would disagree with any sentiment abridging the quality of their work, I can be sympathetic to that feeling of overexposure.

Cryptic Shift stands a good chance of connecting with those types; it still contains just as many brilliantly played and composed riffs embedded in tightly crafted song-structures but comes without some of the cultural baggage that constant exposure can create. But for everyone else interested in contemporary death metal (as well as those interested in young and promising bands), Visitations From Enceladus is an absolute must-listen. Cryptic Shift have taken careful notes from the masters that preceded them and produced an assemblage that focuses its efforts and energies on hooks, song structures, and balance of elements, foregrounding execution to a degree that's frankly awe-inspiring.

What's more, this record indicates a potentially very bright future for this group, who in only one record already feel so comfortable to place next to the current high-guard of contemporary death metal.

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Visitations From Enceladus released May 4th via Blood Harvest Records.

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