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What characteristics must music possess to really merit the “punishing” label? Usually, it’s all about the weight: the music possessing some distinct sense of oppressive gravity like you’re being dragged through a festering swamp of filth and disease at the behest of some unseen malevolent overlord. Penance, the hellish debut album from Portland outfit Tithe, imparts just that heavy feeling.

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Sharing a home with plenty of potent metal bands that carve strong marks onto the international scene, this power trio employs a pummeling style equal parts death metal, sludge, and grindcore for an asphyxiating listening experience. Their sound pleasantly alternates between high velocity abrasion and more plodding, doom-oriented riffage, resulting in a distinct fusion that cures sore ears. Penance provides a diverse listening experience over its 40-minute run, at times going in a barreling grindcore delivery and, at others, applying the brakes for a dirty, suspenseful downtempo approach.

The only real complaint that can be levied so far is that, for a trio with one guitarist, the bass is significantly unnoticeable in the overall mix, being virtually lost aside from a few low gurgles here and there.

The band uses audio samples from other media throughout Penance -- for me, it's a real “love it or hate it” method, but I've always been a fan of their inclusion when they're utilized properly. Tithe definitely nail it with the samples on this album -- overall, it’s a minor ingredient in the final recipe but one that embellishes a depressingly nihilistic vibe established by the music and lyrics. Penance also contains an 1980s/1990s industrial aesthetic, which makes sense given the samples. The “you, not me, will always be shit” sample on "Scum," the mental health commentary on "Lullaby," or the “full of shit” rant toward the end of “Apostasy,” Tithe goes the length to reinforce the album’s bleak aesthetic.

The icing on Penance -- the vital ingredient that really sells the entire package -- would have to be frontman Matt Eiseman’s vocals. Distinctly guttural and with just the right hint of reverb, they conjure the impression that Eiseman is yelling upward from the depths of some great chasm in the Earth, reciting apocalyptic hymns from some insidious subterranean underworld. It’s like you’re staring down into some fiery hellpit with voices from below shouting up at you to join their dreadful miasma.

Tithe situate themselves alongside plenty of “cavernous” death metal of the late 1990s and early 2000s, and, combined with that colossal drum snare, exude a devilishly threatening aura.

Both throttling and groovy, Penance debuts with quite the impactful punch. While the inaudibility of the bass is a detractor, Penance's worthwhile addition to the fledgling “sludge death” style floors with its uptempo moments and punishes with the slower, more agonizing breakdowns. When it comes to dense, smothering jams, this one scratches all the right itches.

-- Che Alzilu

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Penance released May 15th via Tartarus Records.

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