Death metal, unlike its troubled cousin black metal, invariably benefits from sinking more tech into the recording process. This especially applies to the technical/progressive end of the spectrum. Those pesky drums are hard enough to capture at the best of times, let alone when they’re working their way through four different time signatures at once. One also needs to find a balance between the a clarity that captures all the intricacies of the music, but enough low end dirge to carry the slower, atmospheric passages. It’s not all about speed wizardry, just look at Gorguts for instance. So when you come across artists that never made it beyond the demo stage, you know you’re onto something special if the music shines through in spite of the absence of professional mastering. BUt in a way, this makes these two releases frustrating as much as they are a delight. Simply because practicalities got in the way of these musical visions becoming fully realised. Nevertheless, these demos boast more quality riffs than some prominent artists can boast in their entire career.
Missouri’s Timeghoul are well known to any old school death metaller worth their salt. A short lived but highly respected project, along the lines of Gorguts or Morbid Angel with sci-fi lyrics and aesthetics baked into the mix. Their two demos, ‘Tumultuous Travelings’ (1992) and ‘Panaramic Twilight’ (1994) were released together on one compilation by the good people at ‘Dark Descent’ records in 2012. It’s probably one of most ambitious demo collections I have heard in some time. The music more than surpasses the limitations of the fuzzy static that encases it.
What we have here is a surprisingly varied musical journey through the more ambitious reaches of death metal. This means it’s not really fair to lump this in with the likes of Nocturnus or Obliveon. This compilation is akin to a thrilling tour of death metal’s many stripes held together under an umbrella of creepy, doom laden atmosphere. There’s plenty of speed thrills for the Suffocation fans, but these serve to build into slower grooves and odd passages of cleanly sung ghoulish chants.
Timeghoul make good use of dynamics; a feat all too underrated in death metal. This is not just achieved through switching to a clean affect on the peddle board or chanting ritualistic lines as opposed to guttural growls. The music builds and falls in unity to crescendos and interludes, these are weaved into the compositions themselves rather than simply through the aforementioned superficial adornments. They have an instinct for constructing tracks that feel intuitive and yet paradoxically never fail to surprise. It cannot be stressed enough how ahead of its time these humble demos really were. Yes, progressive death metal was very much a thing by the early 1990s, but it was still a hit and miss genre, with many still segregating the ‘progressive’ and the ‘death metal’ elemts from each other; making no allowances for transitions from one style to the next. Usually resulting in a clunky mess.
Jump forward to 2002 and we find Acerbus, a very short lived tech-death outfit at the turn of the century from Austin, Texas. They released just two EPs, amounting to no more than twenty five minutes of recorded music. The second of these, 2002’s ‘The Shape of Noise to Come’ is not even ten minutes long, but it does a good job of aspiring to its title. This is tech death, somewhere between the mechanical approach of Suffocation and the avant-garde leanings of Gorguts of the same era.
The production is tight; tinny as fuck drums and crystal clear bass are filled out with distorted guitars that can jump from riff to riff and time signature to time signature with mesmerising fluidity. I think ‘mechanical’ really is the word here, not just the production values but the intent behind the music on a philosophical level. They will pound through bludgeoning atonal riffs played in unison with the rhythm section, before completely falling apart into a disparate set of noises, underpinned by unconventional time signatures which completely disorientate the listener.
And that’s really point. Acerbus do not use melody and harmony to define lead instruments. The bass and guitars are more often used in a percussive capacity, invoking the image of machines coming apart and back together. The chord progressions that are audible are played in such unusual sequences that it still feels completely disorientating. Now, fans of tech-death will be very familiar with the techniques that Acerbus are employing here, but I feel that within this nine or so minutes of music they do find a voice of their own within this style. And this makes it all the more frustrating that it was never developed into an LP.
A direct comparison between these two releases is not going to tell us all that much about the state of death metal throughout the 1990s. The death metal climate in 2002 was very different to the early 1990s. Acerbus existed in an atmosphere of squandered potential and stagnation. Which may be the reason behind the hubristic title of their second EP. Interesting music was being made at this time, plenty of it, but the early 2000s felt like a time of general stagnation for extreme metal; a lack of momentum, loneliness even. Timeghoul by contrast, existed at the apex of the underground, the fabled golden era. One reason why they probably never made it to household name status above the content saturation. The sounds of these two artists reflect this as well. There is something more organic, natural, effortless about Timehoul’s demos that is ultimately lacking in Acerbus. Both are fine little nuggets of interesting death metal certainly, but Timeghoul’s music, I believe, has and will prove to be the more timeless. Positioning oneself as the shape of noise to come in the early 2000s probably felt like a great idea, one that would not be very well received in this day and age however. Nevertheless, much quality death metal riffage awaits the committed sonic traveller.