The lesser sung heroes of death metal: Malevolent Creation and Thanatos

There are many injustices in metal. Popularity is no metric for quality, nor is critical acclaim; after all a vast chunk of ‘critics’ are clueless hacks with scant insight into the music they are tasked with dissecting, paid for by whatever shallow music mags are still feasting off the music as a monetised commodity. But don’t despair, for we know you’re there, you quiet (and not so quiet) worker bees of the underground, with your modest following and b-tier credentials. For every Cannibal Corpse or In Flames that inexplicably floats to the top we will sing the praises of a Thanatos or a Malevolent Creation that should’ve risen higher in the public eye; which is precisely what I intend to do now.

Malevolent Creation’s second LP ‘Retribution’ (1992) is quintessentially American death metal. From the crusty guitar tone, to the percussive backbone of the compositions, to the restrained yet aggressive vocals borrowed from NYC hardcore. In one sense it is the follow up to Suffocation’s ‘Effigy of the Forgotten’ that never was (the production is far superior to the infamously poor ‘Breeding the Spawn’ mix). It may be slightly slower than the lightning fast pounding of Mike Smith and co, and maybe more lacking in focus, but ‘Retribution’ is nevertheless a solid slob of percussive death metal in the genre’s heyday. They have also made scattered use of those tremolo picked scale runs which is something Suffocation were not known for at the time, which puts this release more alongside Gorguts’ ‘Considered Dead’ (1991).

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Although there is nothing distinctive to note about the mix on ‘Retribution’, it allows the aspects that Malevolent Creation excel at to shine forth. Namely the tendency of the drums to drop to half tempo and pick up again completely independently of the guitars. What we are witnessing is the slow but sure transitions of early death metal from thrash to a thoroughly distinctive musical form; as opposed to just a faster, harder version of Slayer. Thrash metal, building on the foundations of hardcore punk and d-beat, would allow the riffs to determine not only the structure of the music, but often the rhythms as well; with the drums operating on their own independent cycles. They will often continue to pound along consistently without acknowledging the builds and falls of the guitar work’s drama.

Malevolent Creation excel at a form of death metal that would further accentuate these features. The drums will only occasionally link up with the guitars in following the rhythm of the riffs. For the rest of the album, the two elements are given the freedom to find their own path. Of course, these foundational elements of death metal have been taken further and better by other artists, but ‘Retribution’, being a clear, crisp and uncluttered album, provides an invaluable insight into the stepping stones this music has taken along the way.

Thanatos are a long-standing pillar of Dutch metal. Whilst their work is predominantly bedded into a thrash metal foundation, there is no shortage of creativity and fresh ideas in their back catalogue. Their debut, ‘Emerging from the Netherworlds’ (1990) was an energetic and catchy thrash metal album with one foot in death and a distinctive melodic sensibility. Follow-up – 1992’s ‘Realm of Ecstasy’ – is a work of patience and restraint by comparison. We are of course talking in context here, this is still fast and hard music, exemplifying Thanatos’ odd ability to throw in catchy riffs and solos almost effortlessly and without the listener even noticing a bump in the road when it comes to sonic continuity.

But the structures of these tracks are more developed, they take their time unfolding, they utilise the simple virtues of contrast to great effect. This is all the more impressive given the fundamental constraint placed on ‘Realm of Ecstasy’, namely that the production is a little weak. The guitar tone is serviceable certainly, but the drums sounds a little flat, and to compensate too much reverb has been used. This means that in the faster passages the snare is at times in danger of overpowering everything. Nevertheless, a fine album shines through from this dry, sun-baked soil.

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So back to the structure. Much like Krabathor of the same era, there is no esoteric mystery as to why this music is so engaging; what you are witnessing is the honest nuts and bolts of good composing. Most tracks give the initial impression of being short lived death/thrash numbers played at a rippingly fast pace, but they quickly take a left turn with a slow breakdown, patiently layered guitars that work their way through very hummable melodies, before gradually building the music back to its original pace. But prior to returning to the original themes of the track, Thanatos will take many more twists and turns through the corridors of their riffcraft before closing a track.

‘Realm of Ecstasy’ is one of those releases that makes me happy. One big reason for this is that it simply doesn’t settle down. You can turn off your mind and just let the fluidity and dynamism of Thanatos’ metal carry you along for the journey. They are not as frantic and restless as their more technical brethren, nor is the result a random and jagged playing field. But each track is packed full of unexpected developments that leave you in a completely different place by the close. It makes me happy because there really is no short-lived novelty or cheap trick behind this, just honest to god high quality metal with all the ambition that comes with the genre tag at its best.

Depending on your perspective these are two releases from the ‘also-rans’ of death metal’s heyday. But I feel that couching them in these terms is a little disheartening, as they are both fine albums that deserve a place in history. But in terms of my pick of the week it simply has to be ‘Realm of Ecstasy’. ‘Retribution’ is an enjoyable album certainly, but aside from being an interesting specimen of study for the death metal historian, its strong points are exemplified more and better by many of their peers. ROE on the other hand has more of its own character, a distinctive creativity, and a colour and life all its own. Although it is often side-lined when discussing Dutch metal in favour of the likes of Pestilence and Asphyx, it is every bit as deserving of a place in the history of this era.

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