Sleepwalk to Death: Noctambulist’s “Atmospheres of Desolation”
Death metal’s most recent paradigm shift has steered the forefront of the genre into a full-fledged renaissance of its most primordial elements, creating a back-to-basics OSDM revival drenched in the dungeon-crawling grime and viscera of the early 1990s. This cresting cultural movement has inspired the stylistic direction of countless new bands -- many of 2018’s most lauded breakout groups found immense success by emulating this raw old-school attitude through the clarifying filter of polished modern production, providing both new heads and seasoned veterans alike with a wave of metal that is nostalgic, yet more than a simple re-hash.
But while these retrograde bands are capable of advanced songwriting and highly creative blends of brutality, only a handful among them create music that could be considered truly progressive or avant-garde; despite this flourishing of new and admittedly diverse groups, it often feels that the scene has reached an oversaturated plateau. The next step in the evolution of death metal must therefore be achieved by infusing the genre’s revitalized fundamental essence into innovative and unfathomable forms, unprecedented constructions as of yet unexplored by the human mind. The genre must advance as it always has, by plumbing the remote and unsettling depths of the human experience.
Enter Noctambulist, an enigmatic new creation that exploded onto Colorado’s underground metal scene in the latter half of 2018 with a slew of impeccable live performances in their hometown of Denver. A decidedly secretive entity, Noctambulist elected to establish their reputation initially upon the strength and ferocity of their live set before ever releasing recorded material to the public. Opening for the likes of aesthetically similar bands such as Infernal Coil, Skeletal Remains, and Spectral Voice, the group thus chose to garner attention via word of mouth.
I had the privilege of attending many of these concerts, and was pleasantly surprised as Noctambulist consistently exceeded my expectations; while their sound still retained the hostility and untamed animal savagery that is the new standard within modern death metal, their compositions concealed a core of technical calculation and psychological density tucked away within the chaos. Playing brief sets, the group’s four members would crackle explosively to life and tear through their songs without pause or lapse in focus, like one continuous electrical storm. True to their mystifying nature, Noctambulist’s members donned black hoods during their performances, not to protect their identities or hide behind a gimmick but rather to visually consummate their labyrinthine music. Besides the hoods, the members were garbed in typical light metal fashion, making no point to appear outlandish or extravagant. While observing their performances I sensed a rigid attention to detail, a fervent passion for musical exploration, and above all else, a tightly layered identity to the band.
Finally, in late October 2018, Noctambulist announced the January 21st release of their debut full-length and simultaneously dropped its title track “Atmospheres of Desolation," a mesmerizing demonstration of the group’s formidable abilities and enthralling sonic range.
Listening to the track several times over, an idea I had been fostering about the group was reinforced: Noctambulist could be one of the few forthcoming bands harnessing the potential to further pioneer a rare and highly esoteric strain of tech-death that combines hyper-meticulous mechanical savagery with rich psychedelic and organic textures. Given their prime candidacy to carry on the legacy of titans such as Gorguts and Ulcerate, I saw in Noctambulist the opportunity to finally quench my thirst for the bizarre and the cerebral, and eagerly prepared to enter 2019 with a headfirst dive into holistically progressive, groundbreaking territory.
Atmospheres of Desolation instantly drowns the listener in a deluge of raucous distortion on its first track “Dimming Lights Illuminate” as fuzz and static pour forth from a caustic, churning riff dragging us down into claustrophobic, apocalyptic landscapes. Oppressive, caustic screams begin to sizzle and echo out over the din, ghoulish vocals steeped in reverb emerging from curtains of harsh tone to herald our arrival within Noctambulist’s twisted realm. Wasting no time whatsoever, the apprehensive sludge of the record’s introduction quickly fades into the grueling chainsaw guitars and beastly death growls of “Abnegation," immediately unleashing the full mind-bending speed and ferocity that is to be expected from the next 25 minutes.
Grinding, spiraling guitars thrash torturously within chasms of blistering percussion -- like the maddened victims of entropy, the group cycles between time signatures as they transition fluently from writhing masses of tangled dissonance to a whirling cosmic gallop and back again within seconds. Between these passages of chaos, moments of contemplation and frostbitten stoicism reveal the vastly philosophical nature of Noctambulist’s sound: the bedlam of the music itself communicates the conceptual theme of cognitive dissonance between blackened triumphant whimsy and trance-like manic hysteria, with collisions between the two yielding astonishing results.
The album’s two most crushing pieces (and in my opinion, its strongest compositions) are title track “Atmospheres of Desolation” and the fifth track “Denial of Autonomy." Both feature similar compositional structure and were clearly written with the intention of incorporating all of Noctambulist’s multitude of elements and influences. Beginning with the group’s signature towering surge of discordant guitars, the former track leans heavily toward deathgrind-style obliteration as its lightning fast tremolo introduction segues into an unbridled breakdown just before the two-minute mark; the ever-present dense blackened ambiance and sense of mathematical calculation, however, keep one foot rooted in atmospheric, progressive territory as the group trades explosive chugs with a lilting 6/8 gallop. The latter half of the track bathes the listener in a cavernous, darkly melodic shadow-lurking passage which gradually swells back into a grim, blast-beat assault adorned with agonized wailing vocals, which eventually swirl away into the underlying void of static that constantly simmers beneath the madness. On “Atmospheres of Desolation,"Noctambulist exhibits the vast array of different niches from which they borrow, including healthy doses of tech-death, blackened death, grindcore, and even death-doom, combining all of these into a completely unique and idiosyncratic sound with deft fluidity.
“Denial of Autonomy," arguably the record’s heaviest track, is similarly underpinned with a grinding beat as sputtering tremolo guitars slither atop the pounding rhythms. Though not as immense and unforgiving as the title track, this piece is yet another testament to Noctambulist’s diversity as it makes an about-face turn into trance-like droning riffs that spiral downward with tribal, drum circle floor-tom fills that build into a plodding yet fiercely aggressive gravitational stomp. This specific structural organization is a winning formula for the band, as it once again showcases the full range of aesthetic qualities they are capable of successfully creating. Furthermore, “Denial of Autonomy” highlights the eastern tonalities and uncanny augmented shapes sewn throughout the record, which add generously to the otherworldly, alchemical aura achieved therein.
By breaking away from death metal’s overly typical “cathedral of gore” quality defined by diminished and minor scales, Noctambulist ventures out into far-off transcendental spaces, exploring the most remote corners of the mind. The ability to swap components from different styles to create a totally new animal is the group’s defining and most outstanding quality, putting them well ahead of the up-and-coming pack.
Even as this plethora of discordant harmonies and rhythms whirs by the listener at a breakneck pace, the production on Atmospheres of Desolation stays remarkably consistent across its myriad tonal shifts, smoothing even the most sudden and unpredictable transitions. The obfuscating anesthetic fog of “Dimming Lights Illuminate” continues to billow out across the record’s every twist and turn, but as monstrous tendrils pierce through this heavy atmosphere the record’s nuanced mixing gives each sonic element its own distinct silhouette against the fray of the collective. Noctambulist’s vocals blend seamlessly with their instrumental cacophony, merging into the overall tone without being drowned out or buried between other frequencies. A vortex of shapeshifting percussion techniques weaves itself between elusive riffs as pulverizing double-bass sequences melt into ravenous blast beats punctuated by shimmering rides, keeping the pace of the record fresh and completely unpredictable. On top of tasteful mixing and a inimitable sense of ambiance, the album also flows effortlessly from one track to the next, creating a feverish, unrelenting procession that begins to feel more like one immense composition rather than six individual pieces.
Eschewing the unfiltered, in-your-face production utilized by many bands within the aforementioned old-school revival, Noctambulist has wiped off the fine-tuned slime and gristle of their sentimental peers in favor of a more expansive, meditative, and mystically charged timbre. Atmospheres of Desolation seeks to immerse the listener within a headspace described by the band as “levitational," a state that largely ignores the classic meat-and-potatoes physicality of death metal to instead focus on intangible musical expressions that slip away beyond the periphery of one’s thoughts. Even still, much of Noctambulist’s sound retains the sludgy, murky sizzle that is characteristic of many of their compatriots within the Denver scene (which is largely defined by noise-ridden sludge and punishingly heavy doom) but retain their own distinct musical sensibility by adding hyper-calculated and wickedly complex elements into both their songwriting and production. Thus, despite their avant-garde tendencies, Noctambulist presents a style of death metal that is still accessible to savvy fans of the modern scene.
Despite the moniker Atmospheres of Desolation, I rarely felt the record to be particularly bleak, hopeless, or despairing. Instead, I felt the prevailing emotion conjured up by Noctambulist’s incomprehensible maelstrom to be defined by spiritual voraciousness, a sense of inert rage longing for vengeance or perhaps yearning for clarity. Philosophically, album launches itself fully into the existential and the occult, with an emphasis on the concept that reality is subjectively created within the mind. It is equal parts cerebral and psychedelic, an enthralling journey through warped mental landscapes that suggests a deep analysis of timeless human archetypes. Although madness and insanity are seemingly championed within the group’s sound, closer inspection into their music reveals high levels of mathematical precision stemming not from true psychosis, but rather a mind helplessly baffled by altered states of consciousness and enshrouded by the mind’s endless facades. Given that the group’s name is synonymous with “sleepwalker," their themes deal with cognition in the absence of lucidity, creating an atmosphere that is haunting, ominous, and slightly disturbing, but rarely depressing. Above all else, their sprawling, chaotic sound inspires the feeling of steadfast stoicism pushed to its breaking point by immense psychological trials.
The sixth and final track of the record, “Habitual Falsehood," sees Noctambulist thrusting once more into obscure, uncharted waters. An extremely progressive elegy, the song peels back the record’s outer layers of fuzz and distortion to reveal grotesquely melodic leads over searing lightspeed riffs played in the style of melodic death verging on early metalcore, making for one of the most remarkable moments on the full-length and keeping the listener guessing right up until its ultimate conclusion.
Standing as the longest song of the record, “Habitual Falsehood” also emphasizes one of the most surprising elements of Atmospheres of Desolation, which is the relative brevity of its compositions. In the realm of deeply conceptual atmospheric death metal, individual tracks can easily run past eight or nine minutes; Noctambulist, on the other hand, has chosen to present a markedly concise debut album that cycles rapidly through various contrasting ideas, presenting six tracks of scorching ire in just under 28 minutes. While this succinctness is not necessarily a shortcoming of the record, it inevitably left my thirst for the group’s whimsical viciousness largely unslaked. Too often we are introduced to an excellent motif that is briefly demonstrated then quickly shoved aside to make room for the next tonal shift. Although the album is a thorough exhibition of Noctambulist’s undeniably raw songwriting and virtuosic playing abilities, I felt that it ended almost too soon, that it could have been re-organized to better highlight its overall thematic arc.
However, a shorter run-time does yield definite benefits: in lieu of boring the listener, the record simply powers through with no breaks, keeping the audience capitulated throughout. It also eliminates the need to bridge conceptual gaps with unnecessary filler, keeping the sound flowing fast and consistent like a pressurized fluid. Also, despite its impressive levels of compositional creativity, about half of the tracks on Atmospheres of Desolation seem just barely formulaic and self-similar; if the album were considerably longer, perhaps the group could commit entire tracks to the fleshing out of different moods and attitudinal shifts rather than attempting to run the gauntlet in each composition. It is odd that Noctambulist chose to devote the whole of the album’s first track “Dimming Lights Illuminate” to a single introductory riff, while the other five tracks seem to cram an entire hour’s worth of ideas into five minutes.
That all said, with Atmospheres of Desolation, Noctambulist has debuted their outstanding brand of mind-boggling death metal to the tune of immense success and well-deserved recognition. Where many of their peers have triumphed in manifesting a satisfactory throwback sound, this innovative group has incorporated the best components of countless pre-existing subgenres to craft something holistically progressive and forward-thinking. A breath of fresh air in the face of the recent OSDM overload, this group has clearly accomplished their goal of presenting an incredibly focused and consummate aesthetic with a foundation built upon immaculate performance and streamlined delivery.
-- Thomas Hinds
Atmospheres of Desolation releases January 21st via Blood Harvest Records and Helter Skelter Productions. Pre-orders can be made here.
Support Invisible Oranges on Patreon.