Reclaiming sacred ground: Execration and Morbus Chron

I think I’ve mentioned this point before, so I don’t want to over-egg it: technical death metal – a genre with much potential – was hijacked towards the late 1990s, and boy did it take a while to recover. Suffocation were a fantastically influential band, and rightly so, but with the rise of Nile and Necrophagist, and later the likes of Obscura, it became intricately tied in with brutal death metal, slam, and various forms of deathcore in the 2000s. Whatever one thinks of these instigators, the musical landscape they paved the way for was something of a travesty. Exceptions abound, but for all the hi-fidelity musicianship required, the arms race of technical ability, all relegated the genre to an inward looking, ever shrinking bubble of confinement. It became insulated, limited, musician’s music. Overworked themes and concepts were bolstered by an array of impressive but artistically barren music. This trend has been gradually on the wain over the last ten years. Technical and progressive music can be a style that takes its time, it can be brooding and patient, it can let ideas sink in and stew in the listener’s mind. It does not need to be an insane carnival of lightening fast musicality so dense and randomised as to lose all purpose and direction.

Norway’s Execration are a neat little death metal outfit that have been quietly putting out engaging material for some year’s now. Their third full length, 2014’s ‘Morbid Dimensions’, is a fine example of what would broadly be considered progressive death metal, but without the overtly flashy musicianship one would normally expect from such a tag. The guitar tone is cleaner than the norm for death metal, with many of the higher end melodies and licks sounding almost devoid of any distortion. Add to that a no thrills drum sound with almost nothing in the way of reverb, and Execration are left with nowhere else to hide. There are plenty of atmospheric passages, but these are usually denoted by understated leads with restrained reverb, relying more on an abrupt shift in tempo or dynamics to signpost them. Vocals range from the pained and melodramatic, to more standard guttural death metal fair, and are set very high in the mix, remaining clear and crisp over what is already a very sharp mix.

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This leaves Execration to exhibit what they do well with little to distract us. This is a tight, focused exercise in riff construction from the get-go. Because of the clarity of all the instruments present, it allows them more flexibility than a lot of death metal to really layer their compositions up with complexity, without resorting to lightening fast tempos or riff-salad track construction. This is technical in the sense that we have two complex guitar tracks, sometimes working in unison, but for the most part playing counterpoint or harmony. Add to that a crystal clear bass track which does not shy away from walking its own complimentary path, and we have death metal that twists and turns in unexpected yet easily digestible tangents and cadences, with very few dull or predictable moments. The technical or progressive elements stem from the labour and creativity of layering each instrument, each playing an independent piece of music that would be engaging enough in its own right, and piecing all these things together into a transcendent whole.

The drums for the most part follow the patterns and phrasing of the riffs. Their role in this seems to be one of accenting the chaos or dialling it back when required as opposed to offering anything overly intricate. There are many neat little patterns throughout the course of ‘Morbid Dimensions’, but their purpose is to bolster up the impact of the riffs rather than to dazzle the listener with virtuosity. And herein lies the key to this music’s appeal. As mentioned before, in toning down the overly showy elements of technical metal. the musicians are able to focus on patiently building their music from the ground up, rather than just chucking as many riffs and time signatures at the listener as fast as possible. Equally, this is not music that builds to finales or crescendos. Its rises and falls happen far more frequently, consistently twisting and turning, spinning out a rich tapestry of music. I’d liken it to exploring a vast maze with all its passages and dead-ends, as opposed to gradually ascending a great peak which a lot of metal aims for.

Sweden’s Morbus Chron were there one day gone the next. After releasing one of the most critically acclaimed death metal albums of the decade they just stopped. Only very recently have we had the announcement that Robert Andersson was forming a new project called Sweven, and released an album with a quicker turnaround than the breakup of the previous project. These Swedes don’t mess about. Watch this space for some thoughts on this release when I get to it. But, back to 2014, with Morbus Chron’s near legendary offering ‘Sweven’. ‘Atmospheric’ and ‘death metal’ are two terms that don’t often gel. Death metal that is considered atmospheric is usually so by virtue of dilution with another genre; doom, prog, black. Equally, whilst death metal is no stranger to heavy handed aesthetics, more often than not it’s secondary to the riffs, to the sonic architecture, to the plethora of musicality on display. For this reason many compositional tools open to other forms of music are not present in death metal, one of the most obvious being dynamics.

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And this is where we shall start with a release like ‘Sweven’. Because whilst this is certainly psychedelic in parts, proggy in others, what really sets this album apart is dynamics. There’s no small amount of post rock at work throughout this album. Both in the gradual builds of simple repeated melodies that rest atop one another and rise up into a vast crescendos, but also in the fact that Morbus Chron do not shy away from the major key, indeed in places they sound positively euphoric. One can hear many non-metal influences at play throughout ‘Sweven’, and for the most part they are slipped in surreptitiously beneath the highly stylised production values and the longform approach to musical construction at work here.

But there’s a problem. And it’s a problem with a lot of metal of recent years with similar ideals, one that many claim Morbus Chron have actually risen above but I fear they succumb to nevertheless. That problem is one of an over abundance of ideas. Before we continue I’ll insert the disclaimer here, there are many passages and ideas on ‘Sweven’ that are certainly noteworthy. But I find myself stopping short of praising the whole because I fail to see how some of them connect up. This worry is brought into stark relief whilst listening to ‘Sweven’ because frankly some of the tracks are a masterclass in complex, multi-faceted progressive metal done right. But then other segments – by contrast – feel hastily stitched together because they wanted two particular riffs from different musical histories, but did not know how to effectively connect them up. Rather than simply ditch one and spend more time on a flowing composition, they kept them both in, and the connecting ideas seem either clunky or downright out of place.

Now this is a problem with a lot of modern technical or progressive metal, and Morbus Chrons – for the most part – do a far better job of tying together all their disparate influences than many of their contemporaries, so I don’t want to lay too much at their door. But it is enough of an issue to make this an album with a clutch of great ideas, great enough to warrant revisiting, but prevent the whole from start to finish flowing as one piece of music.

Both these albums dropped at a time when death metal was finding its feet again, and in many ways proved to herald a new golden age. This was occurring in parallel to a revival of old school ideals in death metal so intense that it became an all consuming obsession. But in the field of technical and progressive variants of the form, both these releases bucked the arms race trend, and let their music stand on its own merits rather than jumping up and down and screaming for attention. But in terms of the superior of the two, and probably to the horror of the Morbus Chron loyalists, I am selecting Execration’s ‘Morbid Dimensions’ as the pick of the week. It’s not a flawless album by any stretch – the run-time could do with a trim – but the execution of an idea is more fluid, intuitive, and ultimately more rewarding than ‘Sweven’, despite the latter boasting some fine moments nevertheless.

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