In the current renaissance of extreme metal, it must be hard for older artists to find their voice. Having witnessed so many changes in the world and in the metal scene, staying relevant is a constant challenge. As technology develops exponentially, with cultures and societies barely keeping up with the newest innovations, the scale of this challenge only increases. One possible response is to just ignore it. After all, many artists try to grow and learn from album to album, evolve as musicians and artists, and many such artists fucking suck. Why not just release the same album over and over again? Here are two such artists who were there at the very beginning of death metal, and are still very much active today.
California’s Autopsy carved out a niche as the band that sounded like Black Sabbath playing death metal, exemplified on 1991’s ‘Mental Funeral’. They are probably one of the most influential death metal band in history, especially on the Swedish scene. After calling it quits in 1995 they surprised all by reforming in 2009 for some live dates, and eventually an LP, 2011’s ‘Macabre Eternal’. What surprised us most was the quality. It paid the required homage to their routes, but expanded on their back-to-basics stoner death metal with oodles of melodic minor leads and melodrama.
Follow up ‘The Headless Ritual’ (2013) was greeted with a lukewarm response. I never understood why exactly. I have always viewed this album as a rerun of ‘Macabre Eternal’ that trimmed down the flaws. The most obvious being the bloated runtime of ME. Comebacks are always something of a catch 22. Try something too out there and you risk alienating the faithful (see Morbid Angel for the paragon of doing this wrong). Overdo the fan service and people will just write your motives off as boredom, or worse a cash grab, and go back to listening to the classics (Black Sabbath).
There is a line between these two approaches which yields results however, and Autopsy – to varying degrees of success – have managed to walk it, and ‘The Headless Ritual’ is the most successful example from them yet. No one is listening to new Autopsy expecting jazz odysseys or operatic concept albums. Straightforward, quality death metal will do. But ‘The Headless Ritual’ has more to offer than this. There is plenty of slower, dirgy death metal of the kind we are used to from these guys, aided by cleaner (but not too clean) production. But the old school death metal riffs and Sabbath aping is offset by NWBHM dual leads that sometimes elevate themselves into the realm of neoclassical harmonies and arpeggios.
This, contrasted with the melodramatic vocals and general horror/gore aesthetic that Autopsy have pretty much nailed at this point makes for a fun, maybe even compelling listen at times. They are able to spring from lightening fast chaos to a doom groove almost effortlessly, and they do so with a morbid sense of humour that is worked into the flamboyance of the music itself. Death metal is many things. But on this quest for sonic perfection, I’m happy that bands of Autopsy’s generation are still around to remind us that it’s ok to have fun with it along the way.
Chicago’s Master have been going in one form or another since the early 1980s, and with the odd exception here and there, they are pretty much the Motorhead of death metal, having released almost the same album over and over again for the last 30 years. I could cut and paste this review from pretty much any album taken from their releases post 2000, but seeing as we’re comparing this to Autopsy’s ‘The Headless Ritual’ released in 2013, I’ve gone with Master’s ‘The New Elite’, released in 2012. Paul Spekmann is the driving force of this project, and despite boasting some progressive leanings on the occasional bass solo, his approach to death metal is persistently basic. It hearkens back to the very routes of this music, when it wasn’t much beyond a bastard child of hardcore punk and NWOBHM.
Take a d-beat, add tremolo strummed riffs, maybe with some minor harmonies chucked in, but invariably atonal power chord play, add screeching solos when necessary, rinse and repeat. Ok, there are tempo changes in places, even changes in rhythm, but I remain astounded that this basic formula is rarely varied upon, and has been delivered to us in such vast quantities. There are plenty of juicy riffs buried in the mix, and Master have been doing this for so long now that they have all but perfected this form. It exists in a time capsule from somewhere around 1985, when death metal was limited to a few demos produced by a handful of outsiders. It was just another, more extreme take on thrash, but maybe closer in technique to hardcore punk.
And here we sit, looking at an album released nearly 30 years on, a polished and perfected form of pretty much the exact same product. Vocals and lyrics would also be very much at home on a punk album, with Spekmann ranting and raving over the vocal track with all the passion of the elderly witnessing history repeat itself. And full credit to him, he’s never released a bad album, because he’s never released a different album. Approaching Master’s discography can be intimidating for the newcomer, but I can assure you, you cannot go wrong with ‘The New Elite’, or indeed any album released around the same 30 year mark.
The above assessment is honestly not intended to be sarcastic. I do genuinely love the music of Master, just as I would love to see a living breathing dinosaur. It’s old, it’s impressive, and it’s an early version of present day life we can witness in the flesh. But for the simple fact that Autopsy at least nodded to altering their earlier formula somewhat (and got a bit of shit for it), I am going with ‘The Headless Ritual’ for my pick of the week. I would take Master’s approach to writing music any day over conceited prog kids trying to develop themselves. But at some point you have to wonder…maybe you should at least consider a different key, a new chord, maybe a new instrument, although don’t overstretch yourself. Not all forays into the unknown go the way of Morbid Angel.