This one has been making waves since its release, so I guess an HM treatment of it was inevitable at some point. Are Blood Incantation the true heirs to the death metal throne, or just re-treading the mysterious paths of Luc Lemay at the turn of the century? Whatever the answer, 2019’s ‘The Hidden History of the Human Race’ has made the boys at deathmetal.org mighty upset, always a good enough reason to crack a beer and give an album a spin in my book.
The biggest disappointment of Gorguts’ ‘Obscura’/’From Wisdom to Hate’ era is the fact that death metal did not follow in the wake of these albums, instead finding itself swallowed by deathcore, slam, and brutal tech-death of the Suffocation school. Blood Incantation purported to right this wrong with debut LP ‘Starspawn’ (2016), and the much anticipated follow up ‘Hidden History of the Human Race’. But Gorguts clone this is not. Although Blood Incantation lean heavily on the jazzy dissonance perfected by the legendary Canadians, they draw on many more conventional schools of death metal along the way.
Opening number ‘Slave Species of the Gods’ for example, is a random hodgepodge of riffs from every stripe of progressive death and thrash metal you can think of. What is apparent immediately however, is their sense of atmosphere and theatrics, an appeal many death metal bands tend not to pander to. The guttural vocals are spacious and outdoorsy, the guitar solos, although technically dazzling, are often used to create space within the cacophony rather than add to the narrative itself. Whilst this is not a criticism in and of itself, one wonders if and how such stylistic choices will play out as the album progresses.
Sure enough, the riff salad gives way to jazz breakdowns, and a woefully out of place post-rock intro on ‘Inner Paths (To Outer Space)’. Now, I won’t criticise Blood Incantation for exploring these avenues. As the tracks develop they often take them in interesting and unexpected directions. There is no doubting Blood Incantation’s ambition and ability to execute a vision. So in one sense this should be a stand out release for 2019. But it’s not, for the simple reason that it reeks of squandered potential, of half finished ideas that are not effectively rounded off.
In places it comes across as terribly disjointed. One minute we are riding the waves of otherworldly progressive death metal and all the deliciously unorthodox musicality that comes with this, and then I find myself listening to a riff that belongs on a Fen album and the spell is broken, normality returns. For that reason there is only one word to describe ‘Hidden History of the Human Race’: frustrating. It points us in a direction, and at times really does aspire to be the new rallying cry of death metal for thinkers. But there are simply too many moments where Blood Incantation break the spell with an ill thought out transition, a jarring aesthetic choice, an influence that – in context – is indicative of poor taste.
So now that’s out of the way, let’s end on a positive note. This is one of the more interesting death metal releases of recent years, and it comes as no surprise that it is receiving so much attention. But I cannot say that this is anything more than a signpost, one that points to new routes and vistas for death metal as it wallows in middle age. There is much fertile soil in HHOTHR, whether Blood Incantation or some other young upstarts grow flowers out of this in the new decade is yet to be seen. But let’s not get carried away with the album we have in our hands today, it’s not the reincarnation of ‘Unquestionable Presence’ or ‘Nespithe’.
Geordie epic death metallers return with an EP of poise and pathos in 2019’s ‘Sentinel’. Whilst previous release ‘Allure of the Fallen’ (2017) was a graceful funeral march of mournful death metal, ‘Sentinel’ comes across as a Gothenburg classic that never was. This is more energetic, more optimistic, and bouncier than what Horrified have treated us to in the past.
The production is a little flatter on ‘Sentinel’, but in one way this brings forth the increased focus on the staccato riffs and interweaving melodies of the duel guitar attack. This does at times make the reach of this album a little limited. There is no lack of ideas and engaging riffcraft, but in places where it is clear Horrified are trying to make use of dynamic contrast, or…y’know, have a really intense and noisy bit, the mix on ‘Sentinel’ lets them down in this department. It should be noted however that the bass is allowed to cut through this mix, which – given the complexity and complementary nature of the basslines – is a definite plus.
Such a shortcoming is negligible however, as the artistic vision placed atop this limited canvass is a cornucopia of rhythmically diverse melodic death metal devoid of pretension or cliché. Alderson’s pained vocals – registering at the high end of the deathometer – remind one of Martin van Drunen. And when set against Horrified’s more sensitive take on death metal, add another layer of emotional depth to this music. This is augmented by the many interludes worked throughout the album, which allow breathing space without breaking up the pace of the narratives, as they are made up of elegantly simple clean guitar melodies and harmonies, gentle variations of those found in the metal tracks. They work with and not against the rest of the music.
This is a technically proficient but not overly showy slab of melodic death metal with a decent sense of narrative composition worked through the piece from beginning to end. Although we can hear the many techniques worked into each track it still comes across as subtle and tasteful in a genre too often distracted by virtuosity for the sake of it. It’s also good to hear this sort of thing coming out the UK, now that the ‘new wave of bland black metal’ in the past decade is finally dying off, there has been a resurgence of ambitious death metal of many stripes coming out of the underground. It’s encouraging to see Horrified flying the flag for the epic and reflective variation on this boundless musical form.
New from Dark Descent Records is Oath of Cruelty’s debut LP ‘Summary Execution at Dawn’ released December 2019. These Texans are ticking many boxes when it comes to the more aggressive iterations of extreme metal: violent album title, pencil drawn album art depicting medieval warfare, album barely half an hour long. All encouraging signs before one has even hit play. The joy of this release rests on an understanding of history many have grasped, but few execute (yep) faithfully. And that is the state of extreme metal – namely black metal – in the late 1980s. Although it wasn’t really distinct from death metal in the same way back then, there was still a notable difference between Bathory and Sarcofago on the one hand, and Death and Slayer on the other.
‘Summary Execution at Dawn’, although prima facie a primitive thrash album with many elements of early death metal thrown in for good measure, is actually really a well-executed (yep) celebration of old school black metal. It has that sense of revelry in evil that was unique to 80s Bathory and a few others, a barbaric joy and unapologetic simplicity. This is fattened out in this modern release with a very bass heavy mix. The kick drums provide a pounding backbone of overwhelming power for the guitars to rest on as they work their way through technically competent old school thrash riffs.
Solos jump out of the thick mix with frantic urgency. Again, their purpose in this music is not melodic progression but to add to the chaos. In the same way that Quorthon and Thomas G. Warrior would seemingly lose control of the fretboard, there’s no structure or purpose to them other than pure chaotic energy. Vocals also are aggressive, but human enough to ground this music in violence, anger, and Bacchanalian revelry.
Although I’ve said on more than one occasion that we are more than done with old school revivalism at this point, SEAD is just a cut above the rest to make this album more noteworthy than usual. Not just for the reasons outlined above, it’s well composed metal in its own right. Subtle drops of major chords before the atonal or minor barrage give the music that all important celebratory vibe in places, along with a decent sense of when to drop the tempo and let the riffs chug along at a marching pace. A fine half hour of noise which means that Oath of Cruelty have no need to turn to unnecessary or hammy novelty to keep the listener engaged. A good old fashioned ear pummelling.