I am as surprised as anyone to have multiple releases from Unique Leader resonating with me the way they have. I don't mean this as a slight to the label, to be clear; it is a blessing that extreme metal is diverse enough to contain enough spaces that it becomes rare for any one person to productively resonate with all of it. It's a sign of the continuous aesthetic and artistic maturity of the broader genre space that it can be so pluripotent to create, even within simple death metal, enough variety that very few of its fans find deep satisfaction in all of its corners.

And they've certainly cornered a chunk of the market when it comes to the hybrid of brutal and technical death metal, something deserving of critical respect even if it isn't everyone's cup of tea.

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Nuklearth is an album so satisfying and so solidly-executed on all the foundations of great death metal that it forces me to reexamine my own thoughts on the hybrid world of brutal/technical death metal while sitting down with a great big bowl of crow to eat.

The most pressing element of Nuklearth is its maturity. There is an ecstaticism to technical and brutal death metal typically, one that makes the most sense as an extension of the extremist urge in heavy metal in general and extreme metal in specific. The technical becomes Ur-technical, with increasingly fractious and wide arpeggios played at increasingly frantic tempos. The brutal becomes Ur-brutal, with pig squeals and snares that sound like tin cans mixed with popcorn machines pounding out a constant stream of sixteenth notes.

The problem in this approach, broadly speaking, is it only has so much staying power, both on record and in the lifespan of a listener. At a certain point, endless sheets of rapidly picked notes processed to all hell alongside stomach-churning chugs and popcorn snares begin to blend together; that initial adrenal rush you get from finger-twisting riffs dissipates and, without a solid song structure or coherent sense of an emotional arc, it begins to mean less and less.

So it was a profound relief that Cytotoxin show a taut and focused approach to their deployment of those tropes across Nuklearth. They are still present, as they should be, but now they are bursts of color against the canvas rather than shoving your bare arm into a bucket of paint. The result is that they mean more, causing your breath to catch when the tech metal sweeps and wild pong of the snare comes crashing in. The band, interestingly, deploy two snares for this record; aside from being a mere gear-nerd bit of trivia, this explains how they are able to keep a more balanced and equitable snare sound for the grooves and structural components of their songs while still being able to tap into that iconic and genre-defining aesthetic element when they so choose.

That last part is the key, though. They are choosing these sounds, not being forced into them by thin songwriting chops and single-minded approaches to composition. This is shown as well in the tempo variance across the record, shirking both the all-fast, all-the-time mentality of some groups as much as the breakdown-driven approach of other bands. This is a tautness and deliberacy in songcraft in technical death metal that calls to mind more Necrophagist than Rings of Saturn, focusing on fundamentals over flash such that those moments of flash feel substantially more rich than they might otherwise.

There was slight flak thrown this record's way at release regarding the vocalist having a more constrained approach here than on Gammageddon, their previous album, but it's a critique I have a hard time accepting. That earlier release showcased a band that was no doubt tremendous in talents but a bit more scattered in terms of economic deployment of their capabilities. The absolutely buckwild arpeggios and harmonies across the record, as well as the incredible span their vocalist was able to cover, felt by the end of the record to be more numbing than impactful.

While the vocalist of Cytotoxin may be deploying less colors on Nuklearth overall, his attentiveness to what colors are the most appropriate for the song and overall mood of the record is much sharper. This fits within the broader image of the record of a band adjusting their arrangement choices to fit the composition and an overall aesthetic aim rather than being mere showcases of personal ability. This choice also fits more snugly with the overall intent of the band, which is to confront listeners with specifically the horrors of the nuclear fallout of Chernobyl but more generally the terror of a world that is still gripped by the threat of nuclear weapons.

That kind of politically-charged and deeply pressing real-world image is, to be frank, neither the time nor place for ecstatic shows of technical prowess simply for their own sake; that kind of approach undermines the goal, makes the political into something narcissistic and ego-driven.

In sharpening their edges and making those difficult but properly disciplined adjustments to their sound, Cytotoxin have not only proven me wrong about a record label I previously assumed wasn't for me, they also produced the best record of their career thus far. There is a solidity to this material that wasn't as present before, always lurking within them but occasionally destabilized by certain arrangement or production choices.

This band has always been a good one, but on Nuklearth, they have become a great band, one as worthy of attention here and in the future as other stalwarts of the genre like Defeated Sanity, Wormed, and Origin. This is a powerful and deeply modern death metal release, one that alchemically fuses the tricks and techniques of the modern shape of the genre with the stalwart songwriting fundamentals it was founded on.

I must say: this crow of mine is tasting very good.

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Nuklearth released August 21st via Unique Leader.


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