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It's strange to view Synesthesia as Odious Mortem's third studio album. On paper, that's precisely what it is, even if there is more than a decade-long gap between this and their previous album -- a span of time during which three of the band's five members appeared as Decrepit Birth (be it live or in the studio). But, on some fundamental level, Synesthesia feels more like a debut than a follow-up. Their first album Devouring the Prophecy (2005) and the subsequent Cryptic Implosion (2007) both received favorable reviews at the time; concurrently, the early 2000s saw a boom for technical death metal groups, from the early days of Necrophagist to Spawn of Possession and more, many of whom broke through to establish themselves as tech-death mainstays. Odious Mortem never felt like those bands, though, instead feeling more like a competent but not especially noteworthy or head-turning group of a particular style. It actually took a bit of digging to convince myself that the Odious Mortem on Synesthesia is the same group that existed those years before.

The gap years, thankfully, have been more than kind to the group. First and most obviously, their playing hasn't dulled one whit; they can still weave dense, dual-guitar shred-fest riffs, pummelling blast beats with odd accents and bass lines that would absolutely rip an eager but unpracticed bassist's fingers to shrapnel. But the years have also clearly taught a lesson to the players of Odious Mortem, and that's a keen, emotionally-oriented knack for arrangement. Synesthesia's songs, while simultaneously not feeling apologetic for their overall high energy and demanding nature. Some bands become over-reliant on ambiance and moody, slow-tempo atmospherics in a way that almost feels like a mea culpa for knowing how to shred; not so with Odious Mortem, where instead we see a death metal band fuse an emotionality into the shred itself so you never ever have to stop headbanging.

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It's worth clarifying that the emotionality on Synesthesia is a rather specific one. Despite the name and the album art, this is not death metal's answer to Yes or husky America avant-prog; rather, the focus is still very much on the same kind of wide-eyed, chest-clenching technical shred wizardry we might expect from peak Willowtip tech-death. The difference is that the dissonant chords here avoid the cliche of emotionally-stunted wizardry, seemingly taking notes from the breakthroughs in the form shown by Artificial Brain in constructing post-Voivodian progressive/thrash flourishes within the unrelenting brutal pummel of tech-death. It would be a stretch to describe Synesthesia as a revolution in this style, but the songs constantly refresh themselves across the disc and, by its end, it's still tempting to press play again. Maybe even more importantly, the songs retain a sense both of menace and fun, that sometimes unnameable aspect of death metal. Metal is, after all, a genre broadly of ecstasy, and these kinds of progressive and technical showcases are partly predicated on being ecstatic explosions of thought-image.

Here, Odious Mortem succeed capably, conjuring easily images of endless immortal ultraterrestrial force emerging through demented DMT wormholes of psyche and spirit.

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On one hand, it is tempting to dismiss this record as a mere genre exercise. But we have to remind ourselves of our biases when we think of this, looking back at the number of thrash, old-school death metal, deathcore, prog and black metal releases that are not diminished by that critique. In truth, we don't ever really look solely for invention in art; these critiques are more often a coded way of saying that the reviewer or audience member is more generally bored of the style. So, dismissing that concern, Synesthesia more than proves itself worth time. The past decade (and more) seems to have taught Odious Mortem to play from the heart and, measured as a love letter to its influences, this album is a pleasure.

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Synesthesia released last Friday via Willowtip Records.

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