Succumb’s Ageless Death Metal Makes Its Mark on “XXI” (Review)
Succumb’s 2017 self-titled LP was harrowing, with vocals that sounded as if they echoed from down an asylum corridor. If Succumb was an arm’s-length encounter with madness, the Californian death metal band's sophomore release XXI brings you directly into the padded cell. The album’s production, handled by Jack Shirley, whose credits include Deafheaven, Oathbreaker, and Botanist, brings the band’s petrifying wall of noise much closer to the listener.
Cheri Musrasrik’s voice stands at the center of the action, with bassist Kirk Spaseff’s supporting growls rising from below. For all its ferocity, there are moments where the record feels intimate, even contemplative, and the record’s lyrical inspirations feel like firsthand accounts of encounters with the malign. But whenever you get comfortable, there's a moment of terror—like guitars churning relentlessly as a swarm of bees in “Maenad,” or powerviolence screams over chunky chords in “Smoke.” In this respect, XXI mirrors its predecessor’s relentless pace.
Opener “Lilim” works like a quick preview of what the rest of the album explores at length. Drawing its content from the story of Lilith, a sort of anti-Eve, the song is the Genesis of XXI. “ALIEN WOMAN/CASTRATED MALE,” Musrasrik wails. [Editor's Note: We've depicted vocals in all caps—normal casing doesn't quite do them justice.] Her eerie voice is unlike any in death metal, a coarse howl that could pass more effectively for the voice of the undead than your usual death growl. “Maenad” follows, and among the record’s most dissonant tracks, it sets a high pain threshold. This is a savvy compositional move—“Maenad” is that much more powerful when juxtaposed with slower, contemplative moments, like the midpoint of “Graal,” that offer shelter from the storm.
While Musrasrik draws on a heady mix of Yeats, Genet, and Zola for inspiration, the grist of this album’s lyrical content is an exploration of the mythologies behind those authors as well as segues into topics like the Boxer Rebellion, Orphism, ritual slaughter, and fly agaric. This last element is pivotal to the song “Soma,” which sees Musrasrik contemplating the form of a mushroom, and is also prominent on the album’s unnerving, almost pre-Raphaelite cover, with its phallic mushrooms sprouting from beneath a blank-eyed figure. It’s as if the shrouded specter of Succumb’s cover had pulled back the veil and stepped into the half-light to offer a bite of mind-altering fungus. The phallic imagery repeats in “Maenad,” which sees “A GATHERING OF TATTOOED FIENDS… DANCE AROUND A PHALLIC STONE” before engaging in “BARBAROUS ACTS.”
After a chaotic beginning, “Okeanos” and “Smoke” show a band in full technical control. For all of Succumb’s moments of Yautja-like looseness, “Smoke” in particular is compositionally varied, compact yet menacing. While drummer Harry Cantwell also sits behind the kit for post-black experimentalists Bosse-de-Nage and spent a number of years with The Lord Weird Slough Feg, the other band members play exclusively in Succumb. All four have evidently spent time honing their weapons for this record—Derek Webster’s tireless work on guitar in ways both dissonant and emotive is on full display in “Smoke.”
After a brief interlude, follow-up "Graal" is a full detour into an encounter with magic beyond the understanding of foolish mortals:
ILLUSORY PHANTOMS AND SECRET WORDS
SPOKEN TO A KNAVE
TERRIBLE IMAGE AND OLD ENCHANTMENT
FLOATING IN BLUE
OF THE PURE FOOL
With so many of the lyrics feeling like retold accounts of arcane ceremonies and cursed bloodlines, there’s a sense of building potency, the effects of the rituals in “Maenad” and “Smoke” echoing down through the ages to “Aither” and penultimate track “Soma.” In addition to fly agaric, the track’s name has connections to a long-lost ritual drink and the most popular drug in Huxley’s Brave New World. “THE FLAME GAZER IS ENTRANCED WITH WORSHIP/BY TURNS VAST AND BY TURNS DWARFISH,” Musrasrik shrieks. It is a timeless reminder of the simultaneous necessity and futility of human escapism.
XXI may be terrifying, with its all-caps, hallucinatory lyrics and cataracts of dissonant guitars, but on repeated listens, snatches of melody come into focus, and the cerebrality of the chaos within reveals the record to be an almost timeless journey through millennia of human chaos. It is sensible, then, that Lilith is the starting point. XXI is a chronicle of how we got to the tumult of our century, with album closer “8 Trigrams” feeling as much like a vivid description of the Boxer Rebellion as of January’s Capitol Insurrection. The track produces some of the record’s steadiest moments, as when Webster’s guitar begins a spiraling riff over Cantwell and Spaseff’s precise explosions of rhythm several minutes in.
“KNOW YOUR CHILDLIKE IDOLATRY IS AN INSULT,” Musrasrik commands. XXI is Succumb’s treatise on the End Times—which, we sometimes forget, have been forecast since the beginning. We howl our way through the eons, unable to escape the sins of the past or the horrors of the future. XXI shows off a band that, like humanity, is capable of both extreme beauty and extreme violence.
XXI releases today via The Flenser.