Closed Casket Activities are a hell of a label, releasing this new Gatecreeper EP as a functional followup to The Acacia Strain's It Comes In Waves the previous winter. An Unexpected Reality is also a formal experiment on the part of the participating band. But where The Acacia Strain expanded their previous experiments in lengthier progressive, sludge and death-doom material as a divergence from their deathcore center, here Gatecreeper find themselves skewing hard in the other direction, producing a blistering set of traditionally-minded grindcore. The longest song on side A is a mere 1:12, making that side's longest cut shorter than their shortest before. This kind of formal divergence offers exciting territory for the band—territory they explore fervently. These songs bark and snap like rabid animals, laying down an establishing riff or groove then a single verse and perhaps a chorus or two before moving on.

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The sequencing of these seven tracks plays closer to Slayer's Reign In Blood than a traditional grindcore record like, say, any given Napalm Death record, flowing almost like a song-suite rather than separate contained thoughts. This is a traditionalist approach to grind that we don't see quite as much anymore, the boundaries of that most extreme form of punk/metal hybrid already having its boundaries pushed to unbearable extremity. There is perhaps a complaint to be made that, given all the years grind has been around and all the exciting flavors it has shown itself to be comorbid to, perhaps more could have been done on Gatecreeper's end. But that puts undue burden on songs that are clearly meant more as a compelling displaying of riffsmithing and ferocious death metal energies in grindcore form than a statement meant to rival the Fuck the Facts and Gridlinks of the world. Grindcore is a finicky and strange beast, being at times a genre of punk, others a genre of metal, and sometimes something in its own strange orbit closer to experimental music or free jazz than anything rock oriented. Gatecreeper chose to limit their scope to the more death metal-aligned sentiments of the genre, bringing varied and compelling vocals and throat-ripping riffs to the forefront and trim enough song forms that your attention stays rapt rather than drifting. The arc from their debut EP up to Deserted showed a band growing increasingly capable at writing death metal that internalized the melodicism and heroics of traditional heavy metal without coming across as trad, and borrowed subtle progressive swirls without marking itself as prog. This tasty sampler of grind-form death metal clarifies what made those subtle structures on their full-lengths work so well: the boys can write a hell of a riff.

And then there's side B. Gatecreeper take advantage of the experimental lark that is a surprise non-LP release, inverting the formal extremity of side A's shortest-of-short songs with their longest song yet on side B, a hybrid of death/doom and epic doom twice as long as their previous meatiest cut. The song, "Emptiness," is built around the diptych of a soaring dirge-like harmonized guitar part not unlike Candlemass and a heavier, meatier portion that calls to mind groups like Esoteric or Mournful Congregation at their most direct. There are other colors and shapes that develop over its 11+ minute span of course, but these touchpoints offer the best insight not only as to the sonic space of the record but the drastic difference between it and the rest of the band's catalog. The most impressive aspect of the song is less that it is a well-accomplished piece of music, something we can expect fairly regularly from this band, but that its death-doom affectations reach as deep as they do within the sounds of contemporary and historical epic doom and funeral doom. It still feels like Gatecreeper in its specific melodic sensibility and sense of layering, but expands satisfactorily on the internally-oriented progressivisms found on Deserted. There was some slight concern following guitarist Nate Garrett's departure, given his presence in this band as well as his esteemed work in Spirit Adrift, that the sense of progressive and epic heavy metal he brought to the table might have been lost, seeing Gatecreeper retreat to more direct material with future releases. The first side of An Unexpected Reality seemed to confirm those suspicions, albeit producing quality material and offering exciting potential directions regardless. That the second side of the EP comes along and totally upends and disproves those concerns by producing the group's most exciting and robust piece of songwriting yet only amplifies the release's success.

While ultimately this record may not meet the expectations we might have of a new studio statement from the group, they wisely released it as an EP and, with proper framing, present it as a brief experiment and appetite-whetter before a new studio record likely due out later this year. This presentation does both the release and the band great favors, allowing An Unexpected Reality to stand as a tantalizing set of brush strokes showing that this band has more in its bag of tricks than mere OSDM (as the more cynical critics of this wave of death metal bands have sometimes said) but instead can offer exciting and successful syntheses of styles. One hopes that their third studio album decides to leap forward from this release, incorporating more angles and approaches, rather than retreating back to familiar ground for the band; if this proves to be a one-off venture, it would retroactively remove some of the glamor and excitement from this release than if it were tentative stabs forward into exciting new ground.

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An Unexpected Reality released January 13th, 2021 via Closed Casket Activities.


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