Triptykon – Eparistera Daimones

Excessive, uninspired and misguided

Monotheist was the unexpected second wind in Tom G. Warrior’s lengthy and storied career – a peerless, bold and unique album from one of metal’s most influential and iconic artists. But with internal tensions splintering Celtic Frost, it was destined to be a singular flash in the pan, a one-off that stood as an incredible epitaph but also a comeback story being cut tragically short. That is, until Tom came roaring back into the spotlight with Triptykon and this album, a new project made to keep the momentum built up on Monotheist going. It’s a third wind of sorts, and at the time must have seemed like a truly rousing second comeback. The presentation of the album – the absolutely maximalist production, its roaring opener, even the H.R. Giger cover art which is of course a subtle nod to Tom’s glory days – only furthered this feeling, and at the time it must have been a truly exciting development in metal to see a veteran artist come back with something so vital and world-destroying; not only had Tom seemingly lived up to Monotheist, he’d even exceeded it – or so many of us thought.

However, as the years have drawn on and the dust has settled, I can’t help but feel this album sounds a lot less spectacular than when it was first released. I wasn’t around at the time to listen to it so I can’t say for sure, and this album’s extremely strong performance in MA’s end of decade poll is strong evidence to the contrary, but nevertheless once I’d actually grown acclimatised to Tom’s Monotheist era sound, that album and this album’s successor Melana Chasmata have both risen to be some of my favourite metal albums ever made. This on the other hand, never really reached those heights for me. It’s absolutely a decent, extremely professional and laboured over album, but it falls far short of the bar set by Monotheist. And with the release of Melana Chasmata, I think the flaws of this album are more evident than ever – indeed, directly contrasting that album’s musical contents, presentation, overall ethos and goals with this one’s pretty clearly illustrates where Tom missed the mark here.

A rundown of the style here is necessary of course, especially as it is a very unique one even after all these years. First employed on Monotheist and extended through longer, more winding songs and a more extreme tinge with Triptykon, Tom’s particular brand of goth/doom is one that really reduces the guitarwork and metal in general down to a very simple, primal state, and then amplifying the entire affair to galactic proportions. The riffs consist of gigantic, crushing yet catchy chords and grooves played through with a mind-bendingly big and heavy guitar sound played across lengthy compositions that are draped in a suffocatingly thick, dark and gothic atmosphere. Tom’s vocals range from croons to wails to whines to barks to growls, all the while deeply impassioned, pained and tortured. Subtle flourishes such as horns, pianos and strings round off and embellish a sound that is absolutely gigantic in presentation and heavily focused on sheer atmosphere, emotional weight, guitar texture, compositional power and of course crushing heaviness. What results is a one-of-a-kind, terrifyingly dark, deceptively complex and multi-faceted sound that is the sound of metal’s most basic elements animated with the most potent occult magic.

The biggest overall problem with the album is the mentality that Tom was working under when making this album, or at least the mentality that can be inferred from the various creative decisions here. To put it simply, this album is striving to be ‘Monotheist but more’, because at every turn it’s obvious that Tom is striving to outdo his immense efforts on that album, which really harms the finished product in numerous ways. This is so apparent that it’s perfectly represented just by contrasting the different guitar tones used on the three albums, which are vital components to the style employed as it is so driven by texture and atmosphere. While on every album they sound absolutely massive, truly heavy and crushing, there is a distinction to be made between the smoother, heavier, more percussive sound on Monotheist and the thinner, crunchier and even more textured sound on Melana Chasmata. On this album however, he goes for exactly the same tone as Monotheist‘s but louder. This really does encapsulate the differences between the three; the elder and younger siblings are subtly different beasts in their own right, while the middle child here seeks to ape and outdo the elder with no subtlety to speak of. The production in general is very much in line with this as well – Monotheist was loud and polished but the music was still spacious and everything came through great, while Melana in general sounds a bit thinner and tighter to make the entire arrangement a bit more visceral and direct. This album meanwhile just sounds like Monotheist but even louder – the guitars, drums, bass, all of it – and critically a lot more cluttered. The drums take up more space than they need to, and the resulting lack of clarity makes the music less nuanced and a bit messy as the instruments start to bleed together a bit too much. On first impact – as in, once ‘Goetia’ first bursts into life – it sounds even more extreme and insane than its predecessor but 11 minutes and one track in it simply gets tiresome, never mind the numbness felt when the 70 minute mark is reached.

Compounding the issue of less dynamic production is that the album as a whole isn’t varied nearly as much or as successfully as those other two albums. Monotheist and Melana Chasmata both have numerous softer, more tender and emotional tracks all over them. They serve to spice up the album with some eclecticism and break up the tracklist’s doom metal crushers and make them all the more impactful by enhancing the atmosphere of the album as a whole and preventing the listener from growing numb to them due to an overwhelmingly heavy tracklist, as 75+ minutes of this sort of material would do to anyone. On this album however, the only softer moments present are the first half of ‘In Shrouds Decayed’, the sub 2 minute interlude ‘Shrine’, the piano break on ‘Myopic Empire’ and the 5 minute ambient interlude ‘My Pain’. These moments are a smaller fraction of the runtime compared to the other album’s softer moments, and they still don’t achieve much of what those other moments did. While they are a much needed break for the listener, these are honestly some of the least interesting moments on the album and routinely just grind things to a halt instead of carrying over the tension from the heavier songs like those other albums could. ‘Shrine’ is nondescript ambient filler that never amounts to anything significant, and while ‘My Pain’ has more meat on the bone in the form of vocals and more instrumental layers it still feels like an extended interlude and not a full song. Meanwhile the first half in ‘In Shrouds Decayed’ is Tom talking over reverby clean guitars that isn’t interesting at all, and the break in ‘Myopic Empire’ is a bizarre artefact that betrays the Monotheist era’s origins in the infamous Prototype demo. It’s also an unfitting and unnecessary tonal shift that kneecaps the song; this should have been a kink that was worked out of the song in the 8 years it took to see a proper studio release.

The failures of these quieter moments are smaller examples of a couple of other major problems that really, really bring the album down. The first of them is that the material written for this album simply isn’t as strong as what was presented on the other two albums. For all the extremity implied in the production, most of the material here is a lot more plain than anything on Monotheist or Melana Chasmata, heavy or soft. The softer moments of ‘In Shrouds Decayed’ fall totally flat unlike the moody, forlorn but still tense verses of ‘Boleskine House’. ‘Synagoga Satanae’ is a nightmarish and terrifying journey while ‘The Prolonging’ is a slog. There are no truly memorable and visceral grooves or riffs here like on ‘Domain of Decay’, ‘Breathing’ or ‘Tree of Suffocating Souls’, nor is there much catchy, flashy or dynamic drumming like on ‘Aurorae’ or ‘Black Snow’. With a handful of exceptions, none of the tracks here stand up in any way to their counterparts from the other two albums. In the pursuit of ‘Monotheist but more’, Tom has Flanderised his sound on this album and stripped it of subtle yet essential elements like tension building, hooks, and generating atmosphere, all in the name of extremity – and all that’s led to is an album that is viscerally appealing on first impact when it’s loud (but mostly doesn’t stand up to repeated listening or as the album wears on) with some half-hearted, boring breaks along the way that grind the album to a halt instead of keeping the tension and energy up. The only times this album truly succeeds and stands up to those other albums in terms of the material being played is the aforementioned barnstorming opener ‘Goetia’ (which remains one of Tom’s best songs ever) and the devilishly simple ‘Shatter’ which is on par with ‘A Dying God Coming Into Human Flesh’ and ‘Aurorae’ for how ingeniously it uses such simple elements to make an incredible song.

The second problem is related to the first: a distinct lack of an atmosphere, which is a massive problem given how much atmosphere is integral to this sound. Critically, both albums that bookend this one have extremely strong atmospheres generated from the music that are very distinct from one another. The way I hear it, Monotheist is this inhuman force of nature. It’s the equivalent of taking a vacuum or the void, somehow giving it mass and density and blowing it up to be the size of a galaxy. Listening to it is staring into an abyss totally devoid of light – you know something is there because you can feel it in and all around you, but you can’t see anything. The sole human voice in the album is Tom’s vocals; which are the whines, wails, groans and shouts of a weary old man who has spent aeons wandering this abyss as it torments him – the instrumentation (critically, the massive guitars) being the calls from the abyss doing just that. Melana Chasmata with its thinner, crunchier guitars, less spacious sound and more ragged, strained vocals leads to an album that feels a lot more human and direct. Instead of being this inhuman force of nature that is all around us, it’s a decayed and occult darkness that originates in our minds, as exemplified by the miserable introspection of ‘Aurorae’, the sheer resentment of ‘Altar of Deceit’ or Tom’s utterly tragic, pathetic whines and growls into the night over a lost loved one’s memories tormenting him on ‘In the Sleep of Death’. On the other hand, this has no feeling to speak of to me – apart from the impassioned rage of ‘Goetia’ and the catchy and entrancing ‘Shatter’, this is all a load of loud noise that is viscerally appealing but leaves no lasting impact, or boring quiet parts that break up the album a bit but also kill the energy of the album and aren’t atmospheric at all. By trying to be ‘Monotheist but more’, the essential nature of that album’s atmosphere, along with the need to balance beauty with brutality and integrating quieter moments into the album’s flow properly is completely lost in favour of being really loud and aggressive. It’s a truly tragic regression that harms most of the album’s ability to stand up to repeated listening, as the initial excitement of the heaviness of the song wears off and it becomes a load of excessive and meaningless noise.

With all these problems in mind another more minor issue becomes apparent – the length of the songs themselves. Taken as a whole and with bonus track ‘Shatter’ in tow this album is about as long as its siblings (77 minutes for this album vs. 75 for Melana and 80 for Monotheist) but while its predecessor had 14 full length tracks and its successor had 10, this only has 9 (discounting the short interlude ‘Shrine’) – so the songs here on average are a fair bit longer. It’s simply too much to hit a listener with an 11 minute rager of an opener in ‘Goetia’ and a near 20 minute crushing penultimate song in ‘The Prolonging’ and then for the rest of the album to be so overwhelmingly heavy and also not that interesting or varied. All of this said, one will note that my score still lies on the positive side of 50%, indicating that I still enjoyed this album in spite of these numerous flaws, because there are many things to appreciate here. For instance, taking one or two of the heavier songs in isolation shows that the material is a cut above most metal out there, with all the performances being top notch (Tom’s vocals and lyrics in particular) and the songwriting being generally solid, even if on these fronts they still fall short compared to anything from this album’s siblings. Messiness aside the production is certainly very high grade and far above most metal out there, and the presentation and aesthetics of these songs is incredibly grand and larger than life. The problem is that consumed as a pack and put into the context of Tom’s career, this is a very underwhelming album.

To my mind, Celtic Frost splintering was a minor setback; Tom was not going to be stopped from carrying on what he started on Monotheist. Rather than the band’s breakup potentially killing the momentum that album generated, I’d wager that *this* album is what did that, being an excessive, uninspired and misguided facsimile of what came before it. It’s not up to the standard of what came before or after it; in the pursuit of surface level, visceral extremity Tom wrote out all of the essential nuances that made those other albums so great. Melana Chasmata is Tom’s true third wind; it’s a recovery from this sophomore slump, the truly worthy successor to Monotheist on a quality level, and a genuine evolution of that album’s sound by being closely related to it stylistically yet still being its own unique beast. I realise I’m probably alone on my opinion of this album but still; I’d encourage anyone curious about this era of Tom’s career to check out Monotheist and Melana before this, maybe giving this one a chance afterwards if you can’t get enough of this sound. If you checked this one out first and were disappointed, give those other two albums a shot as they’re much better.

Rating: 60%

Ulcerate – Stare into Death and Be Still

Double Doink!
My relationship with Ulcerate is somewhat similar to the relationship Charlie Brown has with Lucy’s football.  Every few years, they release another album to widespread acclaim, so I take the snap and then whiff the kick as they pull my football-shaped enjoyment away at the last second.  I want to like Ulcerate.  They’re one of the most important metal bands in recent memory, their discography is very consistent, they’ve influenced a multiplicity of young death metal bands, they’re chaotic and unrelenting, on paper they are just everything I want in a metal band nowadays.  And for whatever reason they’ve just never vibed with me.


Stare into Death and Be Still is different while being exactly the same.  This time I actually made contact with the ball and even managed to avoid a ridiculous Scott Norwood shank.  It’s not pretty, and I hit the post, but dammit I put three points on the board!

What makes this different from other seminal works of theirs that I never managed to care about like Everything is Fire or Shrines of Paralysis is pretty difficult to pinpoint, because this really isn’t all that different.  It’s still an unrelenting deluge of cataclysmic percussion and dissonant guitars that don’t really riff as much as they whir and clang.  Maybe the guitar tone is a bit beefier and less scratchy?  Maybe the songs themselves are simply more well constructed?  Their approach to songwriting is just as non-euclidian as ever but the flow feels a bit more natural to me this time around.  Ulcerate always had a strange Uncanny Valley feel to them, where their songs always yawned and swayed like organic creations but felt lifeless and stiff at the same time, like saltwater frying a fish’s nerves and causing it to flop and spasm long after it dies.  Stare into Death and Be Still simply managed to catch a live one, I think.  Like always, this is much more about overarching atmosphere than riffs or hooks, and as a result the whole experience tends to feel like one long song instead of a collection of them.

And if you’ll allow me to mix my sports metaphors, I think the reason this isn’t quite a home run despite some solid contact is exactly this.  There are tons of twists and surprises within the riffs themselves, but rarely within the wider context of a song or the album.  58 solid minutes of this suffocating atmosphere is just that, suffocating.  That absolutely works at times but around the second act of this behemoth it goes from exhilarating to tedious.  It’s like the coaster I built in Rollercoaster Tycoon when I was 9 that had like fifty inversions and took twelve minutes to finish.  Sure there are subtle variations in tempo and approach on Stare into Death and Be Still, but ultimately you’re just doing the same loop-de-loops over and over again on the same track for an uncomfortably long time.  Each successive Ulcerate album has been a few minutes longer than the one preceding it, and that trend continues here, and I really think it’s to the album’s detriment.  Despite all eight tracks basically feeling like the same long song, it’s still quite noticeable that only two of them run for less than seven minutes.  This wouldn’t be a problem if it felt like the songs were actually leading somewhere, but after repeated listens the only time I can truly pick out a song with a climax is “Drawn into the Next Void”.  The rest of it sounds like sonic flash rust, standing still and deteriorating before my eyes despite the immaculate craftsmanship put into the initial product.  Every Ulcerate album tends to spin its wheels to some degree, and admittedly Stare into Death and Be Still manages to get a good amount of traction and actually move forward, but a lesser degree of the same problem is still the same problem.

When Everything is Fire dropped in 2009, I recall the buzz around it at the time being something akin to “It’s Deathspell Omega but death metal”, and I see where that statement is coming from.  But the key difference to me is that for as anarchic and chaotic as DsO can be, they always have a point to make and more often than not they do it very well.  Some of this boils down to my own personal preference, since I notably tend to prefer my death metal to be a bit more pugilistic than textural, but the fact that I like Portal well enough tells me that Ulcerate simply struggles to reach their destination at times.  I would definitely say I have a positive impression of Stare into Death and Be Still overall, but the problems that have always plagued the band haven’t really been ironed out here.  They made it work more than usual, but at the end of the day I can’t help but think this heavily atmospheric style of dissonance simply fits more naturally in a black metal context and a shorter package, and that’s why Serpent Column absolutely wrecks my shit while Ulcerate merely manages a brisk foot tapping.

Rating: 56%

Kataklysm – Temple of Knowledge (Kataklysm Part III)

When knowledge isn’t power

I suppose Temple of Knowledge demonstrates a couple of things – for one, all the passion and technical ability in the world mean absolutely nothing without taste. It also demonstrates that flaws can come in all different shapes and sizes – sometimes an album is a grand failure due to a whole host of negative qualities coalescing into something diabolical, and other times as demonstrated here a singular flaw can be so massive it utterly ruins an album. There is plenty of praise to give to Temple of Knowledge, and on paper it only really suffers in two departments – but the music is so wounded by these flaws the album manages to be one you can skip out entirely.

This is a straight-ahead death metal album instrumentally, and a very technical one at that. The music walks a very fine line between incoherent and highly technical. Every song is loaded with riffs, with every track shifting between them every few seconds – they range from having a dark undercurrent of melody to being more straightforward and thrashy to being more orthodox and atonal to being more grooving and bouncy. Regardless of style however the riffs here are consistently memorable and strong and keep the energy of the songs up, and the variation in styles stops the album from running together or a song from stagnating or becoming one-note. The drumming is similarly active, with the drum performance here being loaded with fills, blasting, double-bass and more conventional straight beats to suit the riffs and pace of the song. This consistently shifting instrumentation is a demonstration of incredible restraint and songwriting talent on the band’s part, with nothing ever devolving into a total mess or losing focus. A song will flow from A to B in a chaotic but ultimately structured and coherent fashion, going through enough twists and turns to qualify the music here as being progressive. On an instrumental level this is a truly savage and ruthlessly aggressive effort, but getting past this is where it falls down. A minor quibble I have is the production; everything sounds dry and flat, the guitars sound muted and the drums and vocals are a little too loud. Certainly, this doesn’t sound nearly as heavy or crisp as Sorcery did, which is a shame as it doesn’t do the material here justice. While the riffs are aggressive and strong the guitar tone saps them of their impact somewhat, and the guitars are buried a bit by the rest of the band.

To get to the elephant in the room however – Sylvain Houde sounds like garbage. Euphemisms like ‘insane’, ‘psychotic’ and ‘inhuman’ get thrown about when describing his performance here and in sense that’s true – you’d have to be utterly insane to record vocals this poor and consider them worthy of being on a studio release. He pukes, rants and growls incoherently over every last second of the album with no restraint, taste or regard for timing; he totally throws off the coherency of the music by endlessly ranting over it. Compounding his lack of timing is that multiple vocal tracks are frequently used, with growls being layered with shrieks or rasps in such a way that the vocals have even less of a sense of timing. His performance itself is very weak too – his low growls sound haggard, his rasps sound thin and strained and these are accompanied by occasional utterly comical sounding yelps and similarly weak hardcore barks (these sound especially horrible when he tries to throw in a vocal melody of some description.) Admittedly he isn’t helped by the dry sound of everything but at the end of it all he still sounds terrible, and as he’s mixed so loudly and never shuts up his voice is totally inescapable. He sounds so bad he turns what could have been a stellar and savage slab of death metal into a mess, as well as burying the guitars due to the mixing. He turns the album from being something that has to be endured for the right reasons to being an endurance test for all the wrong ones.

I can appreciate that people might enjoy the vocals for what they represent – unhinged insanity – which makes how they sound easier to stomach, and that combined with the incredibly savage and no-holds-barred instrumentation it would make for a unified package, but it just isn’t doing it for me. There’s no way around the fact he sounds utterly terrible by any measure and honestly no amount of excusing his performance as ‘brutal’ and ‘insane’ will change that. This album has many merits, but its major flaw is so fundamental and inescapable that it becomes a complete write-off.

Rating: 40%

Obituary – The End Complete

Lame

While The End Complete may be an album that sold very well in its day, and is fondly remembered as one of the band’s better albums, to me it’s always listened like a pale imitation of the successes Obituary had before it. It’s the sound of a band running into a creative brick wall as they attempt to replicate their older albums with little success, resulting in a mediocre and redundant effort that signalled the start of an incredibly long barren stretch in the band’s discography. It’s a totally uninspired (and uninspiring) album that offers nothing to challenge the listener at all, whether they’ve heard their older albums or not.

The End Complete is very much a stylistic replica of Cause of Death, which is what holds this release back. While that certainly isn’t a bad formula to copy (though Slowly We Rot is the superior of their two genuine classics) the execution leaves something to be desired. The same style of Celtic Frost-inspired brutal, tense, atmospheric and mid-tempo death metal is attempted here, but the band does not have any fresh riffs to put into the songs or any new and interesting ideas or song structures to progress their formula, and what results are 9 inferior and redundant retreads of what the band had done before. The songs here never challenge or excite the listener by doing anything beyond alternating between boring mid-tempo riffs and slightly less boring faster riffs over and over; there are no curveballs here to speak of. None of the riffs are really ear-grabbing or interesting (certainly not nearly as much as past efforts) and the band can’t even get by on aggression alone as nothing is performed with much intensity or vigour. When the band speed up the music develops some kind of pulse but the mid-tempo drudgery that defines a lot of this makes the album very boring to listen to on the whole.

Quite amazingly, given that the preceding two albums are some of the most atmospheric OSDM albums ever recorded, this thing has no atmosphere to speak of – a consequence of the lacklustre material being delivered in a tired-sounding way. The band simply go through the motions here and deliver an uninspiring take on what should be a foolproof formula; even those who haven’t heard Cause of Death would find this to be a severely underwhelming and also-ran album. The production doesn’t help either, with everything sounding remarkably quiet and soft. There’s no low-end to the sound at all, the drums sound like plastic and have no real impact, which is a shame as the drum performance here isn’t bad; it just has to complement substantially inferior material. The guitars meanwhile sit in the middle of a lot of space with a tone that isn’t terribly thick or distorted. It makes the music sound more tired and stale than it already is, as well as even less heavy or intense than it could have been. The production woes combined with the lack of good material and performances makes for music that sounds very meek, which isn’t a word I’d ever thought would describe a death metal album. The only aspect that really holds up is John Tardy’s vocal performance; his distinctly disgusting, high-pitched puking growls that are splattered all over the music are as strong as they were before.

The End Complete is a creatively stagnant bore of an album that offers nothing to actively engage the listener. At best it is death metal-flavoured background noise, or something that sounds like the work of a third-rate Obituary clone. The band do nothing to further their sound here, it’s as if they tried to make this sound as mediocre and same-y as possible. Amazingly, their following album World Demise is a step up from this; at least something new was attempted there, even if it doesn’t always work – this meanwhile sits in their discography like Cause of Death‘s malnourished, deformed twin. There is nothing of interest here, move along.

Rating: 48%

Gruesome – Twisted Prayers

Death metal’s Greta Van Fleet

The revival of old school death metal has, in a similar fashion to modern thrash, yielded a few gems in a sea of redundant, bland, toothless and copy-paste bands that offer nothing new at all, and Gruesome is perhaps the most notable and blatant example of how creatively bankrupt this wave can get. Their music isn’t an Encoffination-type ordeal, where the band fundamentally misunderstand what made their main point of reference appealing to begin with, but more a straight up facsimile of something that’s been heard before with absolutely no twist or spin on it to speak of. I can give it to the band that the baseline level of competency (songs that progress, tight playing, decent and clear production) has been met but that’s really about it as far as positives go.

Gruesome, for those who’ve never heard their music, is a carbon copy of early Death, put simply. They play a very thrash-influenced, very simple and highly riff-driven style of death metal. The longer songs and more frequent changes of pace within them point towards the band drawing more from Leprosy and Spiritual Healing, with the latter obviously being an inspiration for the thematic content of the lyrics and cover art. The problem with zeroing in on a singular inspiration here is that at no point do the band do anything to the basic template at all; this album is literally an inferior copy of those two albums (which really says something as Spiritual Healing is one of my least favourite Death albums) with no positive unique traits to it at all. Literally the only distinguishing features this has from either of those two Death albums are notably worse and less memorable riffs and production that strips the music of intensity, due to being more polished. Not helping matters is that Spiritual Healing has had another impact on the music, which is that the music itself isn’t as intense or savage as it could have been as to not remove focus from the somewhat more intelligent lyrics. This is the main problem with Spiritual Healing, and so on an album that is worse in every respect it is an even more notable problem. These flaws result in an album with longer songs that feel much, much longer than they actually are because the few basic ideas presented by them get stale in the first minute or two and were never played convincingly to begin with. The album is tired, dull, stale and boring and the only redeeming qualities it has beyond basic competency are the decayed remains of the work of a much better band.

There really is nothing else to say about the music, it’s that vanilla and plain. If all new music was as uninspired, worn-out and cliché as Gruesome’s work, there would be no reason to listen to new music at all as every genre would be a dead end that never challenges or intrigues the listener at all. Fortunately, Gruesome truly is an exceptional case, as there are very few bands out there that ride the coattails of larger acts as hard as they have done. There’s absolutely nothing wrong with drawing heavily from classic artists – some of the greatest modern albums in multiple genres would not exist without those kinds of influences – but zeroing in on one or two albums by one band and doing nothing with those influences at all, and not even trying to live up to them quality-wise? That is inexcusable, not only because it’s unbearably lazy but also because the end result of such a process sounds unbearably lazy. Even the earliest of Death clones, Massacre, were so far above this album I feel bad for comparing them to Gruesome, and at least the people behind From Beyond actually had a hand in the sound of early Death. If you want good music in this style, cut out the middleman and go straight to the source, as there is no reason to listen to this over any of the far superior albums that inspired it.

Rating: 25%

Deicide – Once Upon the Cross

Much, much less than the sum of its parts

Any interest I have in Once Upon the Cross has more to do with how and why it manages to fail than any sort of enjoyment from the music. Of all of Deicide’s releases this is the purest representation of the tried and true ‘Deicide sound’ (fast, thrashy riffing, energetic and savage drumming, endless Christianity bashing in the lyrics, lower and more brutal vocals than usual) and contains a number of songs that can be considered classics for the band, and yet it falls short. It’s far from horrible but it’s one of their least memorable albums, and definitely resides in a very low echelon of their discography.

The most immediate flaw of this album is the production, as it makes the music sound less brutal than it should be – in fact as a whole it sounds very plain and dry. The guitar tone is sanded down and lacks edge, which makes the riffs sound less aggressive. The drums take a similar hit, sounding less propulsive than they should be even when the drummer is blasting. Glen’s voice sounds remarkably dry and tired and making the already simple-minded and witless (by Deicide standards) anti-Christian lyrics sound especially unconvincing. It’s a production job that gives a sound concentrated around the mids, and is not suitable at all for music where intensity and energy is critical.

The biggest issue here though is the way the music is performed: though the riffing and drumming throughout the songs is generally of a high quality the way these songs are delivered robs them of their power. The songs feel slovenly and sluggish despite their implied aggression, and for all the blasting drums and fast riffing the performances feel lifeless. Every song manages to have riffs and drum performances that sound very similar, and a similarly unvaried vocal performance. It’s not like wild variation has ever been a quality of Deicide albums or necessary to them, but this album manages to be so same-y that despite being less than half an hour in length the album gets stale after a couple of songs. Of particular note is the vocal performance, which isn’t as low or brutal as you would expect, and as a result Glen also sounds like he isn’t that bothered with putting some intensity into his performance. This problem compounds with the production flaws to make blast-filled, uniformly brutal riff-laden death metal that is wholly lacking in any sort of fire and topped off with a dry and lazy-sounding vocal performance.

There really isn’t much more to say about this album; there’s very little to the music. It sounds like a 3rd string band with poor production skills imitating Deicide when they don’t want to. That said, it’s not like the songs themselves are bad as they sound great in nearly any other setting, just not here. I guess I view this album in the same way certain categorically wrong lunatics view albums like Judas Priest’s S trilogy – it’s a collection of quality songs hampered by sterile production and lacklustre performances. Pick up When Satan Lives instead if you want to hear some of these songs played well.

Rating: 50%

Deicide – Insineratehymn

Insineratethis

Deicide’s progression throughout their career is a unique one for a band of their type; rather than starting strong with a timeless debut and progressively getting worse they in general write good album after good album, with inexplicable misfires sandwiched between them. There was Once Upon the Cross; a boring dud released in between some of their finest works, and the dead patch in their discography during the first half of the 2000s that preceded their incredible return to in The Stench of RedemptionInsineratehymn is one of the three albums that occupies this barren spot, and it’s a terrible excuse of an album.

The unduly lauded opener ‘Bible Basher’ is a pretty good snapshot of what the album is like as a whole – a few seconds of promise in the form of a melodic line or a faster section that is then discarded for mid-tempo chugging drudgery and unbearably tedious groove riffing that gets boring really quickly. I’m not opposed to groove riffing or chugging in principle but the band seemingly can’t make it work given how unmemorable and bland the guitar work is. The good part then makes a return at some point during the song, only to be discarded again for more groovy boredom. In addition, any sort of wit and intelligence to the lyrics has been tossed out of the window. Every song is like this, only the later tracks typically have some decent soloing here and there. There isn’t really any point on this album that will strike the listener as being… anything, really. It’s very bland and uninspired music, with the only real sense of identity coming from Benton’s deep barking which to his credit is as strong as it was on Serpents of the Light. However, this does little to save the album due to the uninspired music behind the vocals.

The music is also very still, with not enough development of ideas in a given song. Again, ‘Bible Basher’ makes for a good summary of the songwriting. While it does carry a few distinct sections they never manage to do anything with these ideas, simply coasting off of them for an arbitrary length before switching to something else. They manage to run out of ideas about halfway through and simply recycle past sections with little or no development. The songs range from 2 to 3 minutes and yet they still manage to become tiresome because of how stagnant the music is. A short song can coast off of a few ideas with enough energy but that just doesn’t happen because again, the music is burnt out and lazy. To make matters worse none of the music is memorable even with this level of repetition because of how lacklustre all the performances are, so after a song finishes boring you to death with the same set of chugs and boring grooves you can’t even take anything away from the experience.

Like all Deicide releases there’s very little variation in the general delivery and atmosphere, yet because of how weak the delivery is and because of how little atmosphere there is the album manages to overstay its welcome even though it barely breaks the half hour mark. There’s a reason this is known as one of their throwaways; it’s a dreadful album. The band also knew how much of a mistake this direction was, given that they started to add more and more of their classic style with subsequent albums instead of moving forward with the sound presented here. If that isn’t a good indicator that this album should simply be forgotten then I don’t know what is.

Rating: 28%

Napalm Death – Diatribes

Far Beyond Time Bomb A.D. 

The ’90s was a time of reckoning for a lot of classic ’80s metal and punk bands. Usually said bands jumped onto a trend and lost any of their identity, stuck to their guns only to fall flat, or ended up producing a magnum opus. Napalm Death were odd in that they not only managed to jump onto a trend (hardcore/groove metal) but then actually made a very respectable transition with Fear, Emptiness, Despair. Sadly though, they couldn’t keep up the momentum of that album and in 1996 dropped their worst album. Mind you, for a nadir it’s hardly awful, being more forgettable than anything.

To sum up most of the album’s contents it falls squarely into the Chaos A.D./Time Bomb/Far Beyond Driven style, that being a hardcore-informed strain of groove metal, albeit with death growls in place of shouting and nods to other NYHC bands like Helmet or Snapcase. Barring one bonus track on this 2CD (‘Antibody’) as well as the title track, there are no remnants of the band’s classic death/grind hybrid sound at all. None of that darkened, hazy atmosphere of the preceding album is anywhere to be found either – this is probably the most stripped down of ND’s groove albums (distinguished by their modern logo), with the riffing being repetitive and textured, clearly designed to be the brutal yet rhythmic and memorable motif of a given song. There aren’t even any solos; the riffing as well as the beefy death growls of Barney are the main focuses here.

And it’s with this stripped down focus that the album largely fails. Barney is his usual self, with a particularly hardcore-infused take on the death growl with a percussive quality that this style demands, so he isn’t at fault. The real problem is the music itself. Now, while I can appreciate that some time was spent crafting this album, with everything being meticulously performed and the energy levels remaining high throughout, I can also say that the music here pretty much falls flat. Very few of these riffs, and therefore by extension these songs, are memorable at all. Nothing really sticks, which is a big problem for a riff-driven album like this. The most memorable part is in fact the drum performance; what it lacks in blasting it makes up for by being a continuously rolling, shifting mass that dictates the direction of the music that also manages not to distract from the main show (the guitars and vocals.)

It’s not all bad though, and some tracks clearly stand out to me in one way or another. This album marks the first time the band would throw in a ‘dirge’ – a slower, experimental song which is akin to ambient music in its construction (layers being added and removed over time, slowly evolving the song) that features dissonant, sustained chords. In this case said song is ‘Cold Forgiveness’, and it manages to work to this album’s strength of textured, monolithic riffing, as well as featuring a much needed change of pace in both the music and Barney’s spoken word performance. And in spite of myself, the rather infamous ‘Cursed to Crawl’ is a winner to me as well, having some of the most memorable and well-written riffing on the album and a more varied vocal performance (even if it is quasi-rapped(!)) The opener is quite the shock as well – with its bright, melodic and memorable riffing as well as its catchy nature ‘Greed Killing’ is probably the single best song ND made during this period and is easily their most distinctive.

However, apart from other songs like ‘Self Betrayal’ (another dirge on the 2CD) and ‘My Own Worst Enemy’ (which has fairly distinctive riffing and rhythms) this album simply doesn’t work all that well. For something so focused on being memorable and textured very few of the songs actually achieve this goal. Nothing on the album is bad, but at the same time not a lot of it is inherently good given what the band were going for. It’s well worth it for ‘Greed Killing’ and even ‘Cursed to Crawl’, and the album is pretty cool while it’s on but ultimately it leaves you wanting of something more than the wall of stock groove riffs and death growls it constantly pushes to the forefront.

Rating: 60%

Scroll Up