For a style of music that developed in the late 1980s from heavy metal, thrash metal, progressive rock, and punk, deeply rooted in the traditions of romanticism, narrative composition, high fidelity musicianship, and a smattering jazz of jazz and horror film scores, by around 1992 death metal was proving to be a surprisingly limited subgenre. Still in relative infancy by this point, there is a strong argument to made for the global scene simply running out of creative steam, whilst its popularity was at its heights. When artists such as Obituary and Cannibal Corpse dominate the scene, true innovation is dumbed down for the sake of the next Ace Ventura film.
Enter artists and releases such ‘Nespithe’ and ‘Beyond Sanctorum’. There are many more that I will be looking at in the coming months, rich with complexity and originality in their own unique ways, but for now let’s focus on these two. Therion started life as a run of the mill Swedish death metal outfit, their debut, 1991’s ‘Of Darkness…’ was competent enough, but only hinted at the greatness to follow. The fact that all these musicians did time in avant garde grindcore outfit Carbonized probably rubbed off on their initial death metal offerings as the entity Therion. For the music of ‘Beyond Sanctorum’ has much to offer in straight up bludgeoning Swedish death metal that fits well within the punky tradition of the Northern European take on the form.
What makes 1992’s ‘Beyond Sanctorum’ so unique is its seamless melding of this raw primitivism with developments in composition and epic narrative structures that never cease to unfold on the listener almost akin to a Beethoven symphony. Modest use of keyboards adds to this sense of epic when needed, however an argument can be made that is would be surplus to requirements. The guitar work is so well executed, not just in terms of the playing, but in the building of atmosphere, what effect to use and where, that they carry the rest of the music along for the journey. Drums play their role perfectly, not overly technical and showy, for this would detract from music that is primarily symphonic rather than percussive in the style of a Suffocation. It takes a talented drummer to add to the builds, crescendos and intensity when appropriate, and then to take a back seat to other instruments; to be missed if absent, but not consciously noticed when present. It is the function of a drummer in music such as this, to simply be there.
Vocals work as something of a dual attack, with Christofer Johnson providing an aggressive rasp for extended passages, and a more guttural emphasis in others, as and when required. Production is competent but raw, and adds credence to the idea that this is a primitive grindcore enthused death metal album reaching beyond the sum of its parts into epic death metal. Guitars, as mentioned, offer a range of different tones and effects, but avoid the Swedish buzzsaw sound outright, as it simply could not do justice to the complexity of some of the riffs. Listening to ‘Beyond Sanctourm’ it is no surprise that Therion would gradually shed their death metal roots and fall whole heatedly into symphonic metal, and eventually operatic metal. But, and it is rare when this statement is true, their transitional albums between the two styles is where the real music of substance is to be found, and it was albums such as this that pulled death metal out of stagnation to last as a viable musical force throughout the 1990s and beyond.
For a completely different and unbearably weird take on death metal’s coming of age, look no further than Demilich’s ‘Nespithe’, which landed in 1993. Finnish extreme metal in general, much like the French, rather than being the hub of a new creative wave, takes an already established style and bends into something more extreme, weirder, darker, an exaggerated form of something we think we know and love. Progressive death metal was a familiar moniker by 1993, thanks to international stars such as Atheist, Death, and even Morbid Angel, but Demilich’s take was something new and completely unsettling.
Even before the first note of ‘Nespithe’ emanates from the speakers one can tell a different ride is in the offing. The album art takes more cues from twisted sci fi horror than usual, the track titles…well: ‘The Planet that once used to absorb flesh in order to achieve divinity and immortality (suffocated to the flesh that it desired)’. It remains impossible to discuss this album without mentioning the vocals. So I’ll get it out of the way immediately. They work as a bizarre parody of the guttural death metal style, deep, gruff, alien, but so unsettling to the point where they felt the need to emphasise that there was no artificial effect added to make them sound this way. In Demilich’s recent reunion gigs, mic checknever failed to provoke loud cheers from the crowd as Antti Boman exhibited this bizarre sound raw and live.
As entertaining and unique as the vocals are, the music itself is enough to catapult this album into the hall of anomalies that litter the history of metal. All the familiar components of death metal are present, liberal distortion, twisted solos, blast beats, myriad tempo changes, but they seem to be compressed into such a tight space that this music morphs into an unrecognisable tentacle monster of alienation. This music is technical but does not feel so in the fluid jazzy style of Atheist say. Indeed, bucking the general tradition of progressive, technical metal, always so keen to emphasise just how odd the time signatures are, how unorthodox the scales are, how numerous the tempo changes, ‘Nespithe’ exhibits all of these in spades, but they largely go unnoticed.
The result is a surprisingly subtle take on death metal morphed into a creepy, almost avant garde version of itself. So unified is the rhythm and lead sections, that it works as a cohesive whole, almost the polar opposite of ‘Beyond Sanctorum’, which throughout each track makes room for each instrument to shine, ‘Nespithe’ works as a single entity, a unified whole that feels like a Lovecraftian horror with many limbs and proboscises tailing off and moving independently. Considering that this is music played by four independent organisms, the unity and cohesiveness behind the playing is remarkable. Solos occasional spill out of the cacophony of dissonance and dischord and grab the listener for brief periods to augment the flailing limbs of this hideous music. Production is clear and crisp, indeed exactly what is required to bring the shear details and complexity of this music to light. There is no comfort, diversity, or other tones and sounds offered by the likes of a keyboard, a clean guitar tone, dynamics of any kind, the music is a relentless, shifting, morphing, blob of morbidity, and it has never fully been successfully imitated.
So of these two slabs of musical innovation, which could be considered the superior release? Maybe not a fair comparison, as these are both unique in completely different ways. But in terms of death metal done in a way we had never heard, Demilich is definitely the sharper shock to the sonic system. But in terms of shear entertainment value, ‘Beyond Sanctorum’ holds the attention for longer. The fact is, ‘Nespithe’ does not let up for its some forty minute runtime, and once one has become accustomed to the other worldly style, it can become grating. This is akin to looking for imperfections with a microscope on the canvas of a masterpiece however, as ‘Nespithe’ to this day remains a joy to listen to. However, although ‘Beyond Sanctorum’ is closer to what we would consider conventional metal, the degree of composition and story telling knitted within the music keeps this release as fresh as the day it was released. ‘Nespithe’ is more of a catalyst, a reminder that death metal need not be overly showy, bludgeoning, it was a call to subtlety within what is considered a very over the top style. But for simply standing the test of time for no other reason than being well written and played music, I simply must side with ‘Beyond Sanctorum’.