From Above (and Below): Five Easily Missed Death Metal Bangers from Last Year
As the old year has now closed and the new year has dawned, as list season has come and gone and all the best records have been catalogued not only here but elsewhere, some obvious questions arise. In a list of ten, how do you cover everything? How do you cover even a decent spread? Would 25 help? 50? 100?
For any who've attempted to grapple with this issue, making a total compendium of every record that caught the eye or is worth a minute of time, it becomes apparent there is no real solution. Every attempted fix leaves a gap elsewhere, while doing nothing feels like deliberately leaving certainly albums to moulder unjustly. This is compounded by that persist feeling, one anyone who's drafted one of these lists or sent in a ballot knows well, which is remembering a record minutes, hours, days after submitting, kicking yourself for a full year that you forgot such an obvious record, swearing you'll never do so again, only to inevitably fuck it up the next year too.
So, this is an attempt to bridge that gap, just a bit. This isn't a "best of" nor is it a ranked list. This instead are a handful of death metal records worth your time from 2019 that managed to slip through the cracks for us but now hopefully won't for you.
There are of course more records of value than what follow, ones that didn't get proper full reviews or looks otherwise. It's a matter of interest of mine to do these more informal dives more often, especially where it privileges interesting releases over merely the good or great. Last year was, like all years, one of great depth, some buried deep beneath the surface in demos and micro-labels while others were obscured purloined letter-style in big labels and prominent groups. It's of value, I think, to have these kinds of informal dives to chart and note these releases as often as possible as a supplement to the deeper critical dives we sometimes do on specific albums or with our lists or columns or features.
There's simply too much great and wonderful and interesting heavy metal, which we all love so much, and despite fitting as much as we possibly can in with all the different kinds of pieces we produce and run here, we're always looking for ways to fit more in, especially in a way that isn't just a never-ending perpetually-updated list of albums with no real notes. This is an imperfect but sincere stab at that kind of form, something I hope to do more often. Heavy metal deserves it. Heavy metal fucking rules.
The Acacia Strain -- It Comes In Waves EP
December 26th, 2019
I'll admit forthrightly that I've never been a big The Acacia Strain fan. This is not their fault; from what I understand from fans, they nail the middle space between metalcore and deathcore with aplomb and, for fans of the style, deliver the goods consistently with a weighty emotional kick to match, and for that I'm happy for them. The problem is with me: we all have our genre blindspots, and the school of metalcore they draw from has always left me cold in a way that it hasn't others that I know and respect. As a result, I typically keep my mouth shut regarding not just their work but other bands of the style. People who love and value this music deserve competent and invested critical writing about it, something I can't honestly give.
That said, there have been two releases by the band that have caught my eye in the past. The first was the Above/Below EP, a brief 8-minute release that played like a single longer song. That piece exchanged metalcore/deathcore breakdowns for doom metal and switched up the timbre of both the guitars and the vocals, giving the piece a sludgier feel that I felt more at home with. Their following full-length Coma Witch was a double disc record, the first disc of which was metalcore and deathcore of their standard while the second disc caught my ear again, being a nearly 30-minute long sludge/death-doom track. I can't honestly evaluate it in the context of sludge and death-doom more broadly, but the fact that it was executed at all and executed well to boot, feeling like it could sit comfortably next to something like Agoraphobic Nosebleed's Arc, was pleasure enough for me.
The It Comes In Waves EP is effectively the followup to that piece of music, once again being a 30-minute long song, this time freed of being the second disc to unrelated musical material but instead presented on its own from the wonderful Closed Casket Activities. The shift in venue and scale seemed to open up the band a lot more this time around; I'm convinced that if this were the first release of a new group or, like Stomach Earth's incredible debut, were released as a newly-named side project rather than under the main group name, most underground extreme metal fans would find it mighty satisfying. As it is, as the EP was released at the tail-end of 2019, outside of standard list or review season, and so slipped through the cracks more on timing than on merit. But it's a good album, one that makes me eat crow on every bad word I've said about bands of this style. It's good to be proven wrong; that means there's more great music in the world.
Wilderun -- Veil of Imagination
November 1st, 2019
It's shocking to me that I wasn't made aware of both this band in general and this record in specific sooner, though I would caution it's better to start with the group's discography here than earlier. The early records of this group are symphonic folk metal, with death and black metal arriving but only as brief colors to the affair, similar to how Thin Lizzy or Judas Priest or Iron Maiden twin leads can appear on any given type of metal record without necessarily making the album feel like traditional metal. Veil of Imagination, though, not only is Wilderun's most death metal release but also, incidentally, their best. It plays like a single long-form song or song suite, albeit one with tremendous dynamic ebbs and crests rather than a single continuous roar, often sounding like if Opeth were produced by Devin Townsend at his most grandiose and symphonic.
The sense of influence of those two legendary forces is severe here, but not to the record's detriment; it feels at once both loving and a satisfactory and logical extension of those styles, producing a vast and panoramic sweep within the style. There are moments that feel almost like musical theater, staging and dramatic pose becoming apparent in the enunciation of lines and swooping and glittering of the orchestration, before it tears into Still Life-era riffing again. The cover does the record favors, too; Wilderun are obviously a band that sees death metal as capable of doing a great deal more than what it is sometimes asked to do.
Scythelord -- Asclepius EP
December 21st, 2019
This is a short release, being only two songs in just over ten minutes, but the Asclepius EP's sense of dynamic range and the breadth of its emotional arc feels much more substantial. Once again, this was released just before Christmas, meaning that between the life duties and pleasures of the holidays it was passed over for a more proper look, but it feels only right to mention here. The proceedings seem to draw equally from German thrash, early Voivod, and something close to the heady sci-fi prog-death of Horrendous. The riffs have a technical snap to them without feeling inhuman, keeping that necessary tie to death metal's roots in thrash to keep things dirty and punky. This is, from the looks of it, a look at an upcoming LP, one that's now on my record on the back of the strength of these songs. If Voivod-touched proggy death-thrash delivered in under ten minutes doesn't perk up your ears, we can never be friends. This is the stuff I fell in love with heavy metal for.
Xoth -- Interdimensional Invocations
October 18th, 2019
Fun fact: I was strongly urged by several editors and friends to dig into this record for a proper review but declined. In retrospect, what the hell was I thinking? Much like the Scythelord but on a bigger scale, this is a mix of death, black, thrash, and prog metal, often sounding like Watchtower or Toxik or any of those tek-thrash cats from the late 1980s tapping into the extreme metal ideas that would come later. Like many of the greats of the style, however, Xoth make sure to keep a degree of punky roughness to the record, be it with some nasty chugging downpicking here or just a bit of sonic roughness in the mix there, enough to keep the album from feeling inhuman in an uncanny way.
If heavy metal is the greatest music on the face of the planet due to its intense imagistic power, then Interdimensional Invocations is an insane transcosmic hyperstellar sword and starship sci-fi low fantasy epic, like "Conan the Barbarian" but half-cyborg laying waste to the anarcho-technoid scourges of the lawless planets of dead space. Killer.
Cryptae -- Vestigial
August 16th, 2019
This kind of dense, opaque music has always appealed to me. It's elusive in an intellectual way but immediate to the senses, like a surrealist painting rendered in extreme metal. There are some quarters that would classify Vestigial as black metal, and I don't think they'd necessarily be wrong, but it feels more related to death metal to my ears, deliberately filtering the brutish directness of death metal through a million abstracting layers, not unlike Portal or Mitochondrial or the like. While this has a great deal of sonic similarity to those deeply abstract and avant-garde death metal bands, Cryptae has moments of transparency and orchestral percussion/timbres next to the mossy smears of distortion and unintelligible gargling vocals that shift it ever so slightly away.
This, plus the fact that it's a single lengthy song, not to mention the stark and intriguing cover art, places it emotionally for me closer to the surrealist films of Maya Deren, the bizarre anti-fascistic horror of Giorgio de Maria, or the abstract philosophies of Eugene Thacker. It's relation to death metal feels similar to the relation more esoteric post-punk releases have with the Ramones or MC5, one clearly indebted to the other but applying Dali-esque mutations to the textuality of the canon of death metal, here focusing seemingly on the Demilichian wing of avant-garde death metal.