I like the beats and I like the yelling: Vacivus,Trenchant, Sawticide

Vacivus: Annihilism (2019)

‘Annihilism’ is the second LP from Sunderland’s Vacivus, and sees them expand their trade in death and doom to newly oppressive heights. This brand of chaotic yet chasmic death metal has been gaining traction in recent years. Largely informed by (although not entirely derivative of) Incantation. Grave Miasma, Malthusian, Symptom, Lantern, and Defacement are all united by a common purpose in creating a new and uniquely alienating form of extreme metal that trades in cavernous atmospheres and uncomfortable dissonance.

Vacivus sit at the riff-laden end of this spectrum on ‘Annihilism’, with chunky mid-paced death metal that builds on the Bolt Thrower framework with more focus on tritones than atonality. This is further augmented by a less brittle rhythm section than the legendary BT, which provides an intentionally unsteady foundation of fills and off-beats, thus cementing the alienating ethos of this music down to its very foundations. Solos – when they do jump out at the listener – are surprisingly typical of death metal, and far from furthering the chaos actually serve to ground the music in the familiar.

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Vocals are a low-end growl contrasted with manic screeching, providing textures of chaos rather than guiding us through the structure, the latter of which is determined solely by the riffs. Vacivus are less inclined to slow their tempos to doom territory as opposed to many of their contemporaries. Aside from Bolt Thrower, this is heavily reminiscent of those other masters of the mid-pace: Demigod. Although Vacivus do indulge in both extremes of tempo, the backbone of the music is set at BPMs more common in rock, albeit with a distinctively slippy foundation of drums that eb and flow of their own accord.

‘Annihilism’ is a balancing act of highly stylised death metal, with music of actual structure and purpose beneath the aesthetic flourishes. For the catalysts of early death metal, the riff was king, and it had to be harnessed in service of highly structured, disciplined, yet ambitious metal. The fact that it pushed the boundaries of speed and intensity meant that the limitations of additional aesthetics was set by the limitations of production techniques available at the time, and how they could best service this unprecedentedly extreme music (hence the uniformity of much death metal at the time shaped by Scott Burns).

Over the years, the battle between overly stylised but artistically shallow extreme metal vs. music of genuinely narrative compositions (wrongly conflated with ‘traditionalism’) has raged on. Vacivus walk a fine line on ‘Annihilism’, one that offers just enough architecture to keep the intellectuals interested, but is nevertheless put in service of an ‘atmosphere’. Logic dictates that the latter should be put in service of the former whilst not being a burdensome distraction.

At this point however, when compared to many of Vacivus’ contemporaries mentioned above, the danger is in making otherwise competent death/doom metal that sounds too uniform. A modern iteration of the Scott Burns consensus of old. ‘Annihilism’ is above average death metal in its own right, but the cavernous production is used to patch over any blemishes on the canvas, rather than enhance the end result. But minor blemishes they remain, so don’t let this hair splitting put you off what is an otherwise worthy nugget of modern death metal.

Trenchant: Martial Chaos (2018)

It starts with a marching band playing from what sounds like a great distance, the background churn of artillery shells can be heard increasing in volume, before Trenchant themselves kick off ‘Martial Chaos’ with a guitar line that picks up the lead melody directly on from the brass intro. And that is how the tone is set for this brief but brilliant EP. The military, a place of order, regime, and ritual, laced with a relentless optimism in the surety of victory; paradoxically the institution responsible for the closest thing human kind has come to absolute chaos throughout history. Chaos from order.

And this is what underpins ‘Martial Chaos’. Chaos from order, and an undeniable positivity beneath the sonic pummelling. The pace is fast, but the music feels more unnerving than it does crushing. Similar to Demoncy, there is a sense of distance yet inevitability to these tracks; much like a long drawn out war, the toll it takes on nations stretches far beyond the front; to stretched supply lines, war economies, extremist ideologies, and reallocation of resources. Vocals are subtle. They are set low in the mix but their presence is unmistakable as the devilish narrator of war.

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The backbone of the music is defined by simple yet effective tremolo picked riffs that are leant extra space to breathe thanks to the an understated, muddy guitar tone. For the most part this guiding element determines the pace, rhythm, and various transitions of the music, with the drums providing a cacophony of complimentary fills or simply underpinning it all with blast beats of urgency and desperation. This all changes with closing number ‘In the Fires of Night’, which sets a marching pace for its eight minute plus runtime.

This is a relentless pounding from start to finish with a subtle nod to triumphalism knitted into the fabric of the music itself. There is joy, celebration, and hope in war and military rituals as much as there is the certainty of death. The euphoric music and song that binds the military together is juxtaposed with the horrors that they trade in. Trenchant manage to articulate these nuanced themes even in an EP as short as this. Definitely one to watch out for.

Sawticide: The 11th Plague (2020)

‘The 11th Plague’ is the debut EP from Sawticide, a fresh new thrash project from that London that they have now. For a debut release from an unsigned band, this certainly is a crisp, polished production. The guitar tone is crunchy, the drums crystal clear, and the bass with all its loose, rhythmic freedom, cuts through the mix perfectly. So professional is this that there’s really not much more to say; bands with the backing of Nuclear Blast have achieved worse mixes.

So, formalities aside, just what is ‘The 11th Plague’? It seems to be one part energetic but straightforward thrash, one part preface to a prog metal odyssey. I say ‘preface’, whereas in actual fact for a compact EP Sawticide cover a remarkable amount of ground. This is modernised prog thrash of a different sheen to the Vektor-informed-by-Voivod school. At first glance it seems to be made up of restless yet unremarkable thrash metal with a descent sense of narrative structure nevertheless carried throughout. But then Sawticide work in pronounced eccentricities which never fail to catch one off guard.

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For instance ‘Atom Seed Death’ opens as a fairly standard jam of upbeat thrash metal, before completely collapsing into a deadpan breakdown without precedent; calling to mind ‘Holy Wars…The Punishment Due’. It feels like the precursor to a lengthy passage of experimental metal before the track will build back up again to a breakneck conclusion. But no, even with my experience it’s good to know I can still be surprised. Because in fact the track just…ends. It turns out the whole thing was building into the next track, ‘Nar’, which when taken together form the centrepiece of the EP. ‘Nar’ is a sophisticated prog metal jam that sets the pace for the last two tracks of this release.

In contrast to the otherworldly alchemy of the Voivod school which tends to be weird to the core, Sawticide have separated out the more pedestrian thrash elements of their sound and used them to feed into the more experimental passages. In lesser hands this could come across as disjointed, but Sawticide have done the leg work when it comes to narrative and compositional unity on this EP. The resulting work is fluid and intuitive thrash metal that is nevertheless packed with surprises.

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