Metal was in a strange place ten years ago. An ageing and fragmented genre, with larger festival lineups already typified by older, well established acts as the only viable way to guarantee any mass attendance. The underground scene was (notable exceptions aside) struggling for relevance, trapped in a bunker, throwing projectiles at any curious outsider that wandered by. But there were signs, even then, of a return to form; for underground metal at least. One such sign was a wave of quality comeback albums or belated reformations of long forgotten acts. Another was the fact that many musicians began to respond constructively to joke hipster acts like Krallice, Behold…the Arctopus, or Liturgy. Rather than taking to online trolling and pointing out why x or y album from 1994 was self-evidently better, many decided to raise the game for metal as a serious form of music once more; looking forward not back. People bemoaned the lack of albums of the same calibre as ‘Blessed Are the Sick’ or ‘The Red in the Sky is Ours’. But these albums were not forged in vacuums without context, nor did they gain recognition on merit alone. The groundwork of the 1980s needed to be laid for them to happen at all. And it may be a slower process today, but this is one reason why a viable underground is not only taking shape but finally using the internet as a force for good. Just as tape trading was used before it to not only share new music, but to grow communities out of this as well. This is in stark contrast to the now hollowed out metal mainstream that seems to be solely reliant on geriatrics and the brand recognition that comes with them.
Sweden’s Entrails were one such belated reformation. Despite having formed back in 1990, no material was to surface until their rebirth in 2008. If lack of confidence was the original reason for Entrails status as a ‘left behind’ band of Swedish death metal, then no such barrier exists since regrouping, as they have been spitting out pretty solid albums consistently since that time. The second of these, 2011’s ‘The Tomb Awaits’ is fairly representative of what Entrails are going for here. At first pass this is a colour by numbers Entombed rip-off that is so obviously ticking the expected boxes for this style – iconic HM-2 buzzsaw guitar tone, d-beat drums, thrash riffs mixed with a nuanced sense of melody, lyrics of death and gore, guttural mid-range vocals – that it almost feels like a computer program wrote this after being made to listen to the back catalogues of Entombed, Dismember, and Grave.
All of the above is true, sure, no veteran of death metal is in for a mind-altering ride with ‘The Tomb Awaits’. But it seems that the hiatus of this band led to some unforeseen advantages over their countrymen. Although they never released their ‘Like an Ever Flowing Stream’ or ‘Clandestine’, they are yet to go astray quite so drastically as the makers of these albums did. Entrails remain a safe pair of hands for not only typifying this style, but perfecting it. In summarising the choice cuts of this now iconic sound they point to its relevance and potential role in the future of extreme metal. The distinctive aesthetic and stylistic choices that set this aside from other death metal lends itself to a refined sense of melody that draws heavily on NWOBHM neoclassicism at its best. This, combined with its more primal and aggressive potentials, lends the music a sense of drama and danger that few other forms of metal have reached. It may not be as complex or experimental as other forms of extreme metal, but sometimes rediscovering the virtues of more traditional melodic sensibilities and narrative structures trumps overly dense music weighted with lofty ideals. From self-limitation, new pastures are conquered.
In 2010 it was hard to find bands that were referencing death metal’s glory days without just rehashing them, or else producing utterly confusing nonsense. Philadelphia’s Horrendous were one such band that walked this line. At a time when metal was focused on being drab, downbeat, black and white, Horrendous looked to the more lively early 1990s for cues. Even the cover of their debut LP ‘The Chills’ (2012) calls to mind the work of Dan Seagrave. So what’s up with it? Well, despite being a very American band, Horrendous take a European approach to death metal; from the buzzsaw sound, the Martin van Drunen wailing approach to death metal vocals, to the more traditional melodies that bypass thrash and reach right back to the NWOBHM roots of this music. Sure, there’s plenty of atonal chord play at work, but it is constantly offset by an irrepressible need to experiment, to play around with the limits of the singular guitar track limitations that this tone places on a musician. It does not lend itself to interweaving melodies and harmonies a-la ‘The Red in the Sky is Ours’ or more recently ‘Emberdawn’. One is stuck with getting as much out of one track for the meat of the music, aside from some very basic chords to underpin a solo or lead work.
Horrendous do a pretty good job of keeping this interesting with good use of tempo variations, bolstered by a hard working drummer. Bass literally doesn’t exist at this point (think I could hear it on the track ‘Fatal Dreams’), so the drums are left to fill the gaps between those ringing chords and colliding riffs. The result is a genre hopping, almost schizophrenic approach to metal drumming that keeps the music interesting. Despite the highly stylised aesthetics of this music, it is clear that beneath this Horrendous are still trying to find their feet. They seem unable to settle on a tone, a mood, or a style that fits for them. As a result we are given an album that is too complex to be a simple meat-crusher of an album, but not yet focused enough to evolve into something more mature. We are given a conveyor belt of good but half formed ideas that never seem to settle or connect up, despite their potential. We know that these musicians want to play death metal, and we know that they want to buck the trend when it comes to the state that death metal found itself in the 2010s. But as yet they either don’t have the attention span or the compositional smarts to piece all these disparate elements together. And I’m afraid the retro cover art and a highly polished and focused mix won’t compensate for that.
What do these albums tell us about death metal of ten years ago? They reveal a genre going through what is commonly called a midlife crisis. Having watched the popular face of metal devolve into groove in the early 1990s, then into nu metal and eventually emo versions of itself into the 2000s; it watched its deeply troubled cousin black metal get eaten alive by Brooklyn hipsters at one end and Disney’s Dimmu Borgir at the other, by the late 2000s with the music industry at large on its knees the space for popular yet legitimate extreme metal was there for the taking. Whether this be by means of book smart youngsters such as Horrendous or the rediscovered confidence of left behind veterans Entrails, is really a false dilemma. Neither of these albums will blow your mind, but they both hold lessons and predictions for the decade to come, and ultimately the much healthier underground we find ourselves in today. No, we’re not yet living through another heyday; and I would hesitate to herald its arrival, but the signs are promising just by looking at many of the albums that come my way through writing Hate Meditations. But setting this aside for now, album of the week goes to ‘The Tomb Awaits’. Although ‘The Chills’ will hold more unexpected moments for first time listeners, it simply does not connect up, resulting in a more frustrating listen, one I would not care to repeat too often. Entrails offer nothing new, but they typify and perfect some very well-trodden ground, and rather than lamenting how well-trodden it is at this point, step back and think about why it’s so well-trodden.