I like the beats and I like the yelling: Khost, Catatonic, Cardiac Arrest

Khost: Buried Steel (2020)

Brummie industrial noise doomsters Khost offer up another rendering of deadbeat urban horror in the form of 2020’s ‘Buried Steel’. Replete with their trademark jagged drone, disjointed and disorientating, Khost frontload the more driving drumbeats and bounce into this mix than on their previous effort ‘Governance’ (2017). The opener ‘We Will Win’ is positively poppy by Khost standards, immediately attracting yet more Godflesh comparisons. Something of an inevitability given the latter’s status as a gold standard of the genre, and the fact that they share a hometown. But Khost operate on other metrics besides an oppressive industrial groove, with only the barest hint of qualities that could be called ‘metal’.

The first half of this album is a confusing array of lethargic drone, reluctantly disciplined into the loosest of grooves by a drum machine that’s been asked to work much harder than usual for a Khost album. The vocals are a guttural growl of sorts, put through so much enhancement that it devolves into an alienating, unsettling static that jumps out of the relative warmth of the guitars, ensuring that the listener is unable to rest on the laurels of the scant melody and beats they have been offered as a reprisal.

The key to Khost’s sound – and one they have finally excelled at on ‘Buried Steel’ – is providing the listener with just enough to latch on to in terms of familiar musical components, but mutating and twisting them far enough that it feels like looking into a cracked mirror. As the album runs its course they take us on a tour of bare-bones riffs, curious repetitive drumbeats, and various different vocal tones, which are occasionally broken up by (sometimes overly long) spoken word passages. But as these pass by our ears we gradually notice that the structure, the focus, and sense of purpose to the music is decaying. Attempting to demonstrate the process of entropy across the course of an album is nothing novel in itself, many artists from many styles have attempted it before.

But not only does it fit Khost’s hack and slash approach to musical progression, but they are not too heavy handed in ramming this down our throats. There are many twists and turns before structure well and truly takes its leave, and pure ambience sets in. And this affords Khost many opportunities for experimentation that are not only engaging, but are at work in a larger structure. They both contribute to and are enhanced by their context. Although prima facie this album is closer to rock music than Khost have been on their last few releases, this larger structure they work towards is still more in line with ambient.

The stark contrast between the more orderly first half and the decaying second half is made plain by these stylistic choices. They have laid the structural groundwork which in turn gives them the freedom to indulge in what would be considered more experimental traits because they are granted context and meaning thanks to the longform view that Khost have taken. So in a sense this album is the best of both worlds for fans that sit on the edge of the noise genre. There are plenty of well-constructed industrial metal elements, and plenty of more meandering drones, but they are worked together into a work with many alleys to explore along the way. It’s not a self-indulgent pisstake, there’s genuine craft and purpose behind this album, one that any self-respecting metalhead should find rewarding.

Catatonic: The Decadence (2020)

Costa Rica’s Catatonic released their debut EP ‘The Decadence’ in May this year. Showcasing metal that straddles the line between traditional thrash and percussive death metal, the backbone of these tracks is a framework of riffs that references the past, and a rhythmic underpinning that brings them up to the present. The approximating impression left on the listener is one of Suffocation playing melodic thrash in slow motion. It’s refreshing to hear mid-paced death metal (and that is literally what is if one looks at the BPM alone) that is actually hiding this fact behind more complex fills and impatient rhythm shifts on the part of the drums. This relatively simple approach provides a new context to an old formula in terms of the philosophy at the core of the guitar work, which looks to melodic thrash and Swedish death metal for the majority of its influence, but does not feel derivative thanks to some simple tricks in their framing.

Vocals are at the most guttural end, and teeter on the edge of cheesy deathcore or slam styles, but keep just within the range of good taste and remain pretty much consistent throughout. The same could be said for the overall production, which is probably the most generic thing about this EP. But luckily the music is able to shine above this shortcoming, and it does not detract or distract from what is at heart very well put together death metal.

Within this tried and tested framework, Catatonic are able to build in drama that is patiently developed over the course of each track and (as becomes apparent by the closing number ‘Those Who Despise its Race’) the whole EP. Riff salads are used to set the tone and mood, with pleasing interplays between riffs, one that is easy to follow thanks to the aforementioned relatively slow tempos that Catatonic stick to. These are then augmented by crescendos and finales that are signalled either by engagingly melodic lead guitar work or simple pitch and key shifts, usually accompanied by an escalation in vocal delivery.

All this amounts to a promising debut for these death metal newcomers. Whatever shortcomings it has in originality it more than makes up for in the character and competence of its execution; another great demonstration of how to exemplify a form by applying the simplest of techniques and combinations of styles.

Cardiac Arrest: The Day that Death Prevailed (out 27th July 2020)

Chicago’s standard bearers of traditional death metal Cardiac Arrest release their much-anticipated latest album in July: ‘The Day That Death Prevailed’. Perhaps it’s fitting that in the suffocating heat of the summer we are to receive a release so stifling, so overpowering, that it feels as if the speakers themselves are falling over themselves to get this noise out of its system. But away from sickening hyperbole about just how heavy this album is (and it is an intense one), this is a great example of aesthetics meeting artistic intent. The guitar tone is undeniably murky. But this is exacerbated by the brand of rippingly fast grind infused death metal that Cardiac Arrest indulge in. This is a classic case of these stylistic choices informing the compositions, which are deliberately based around elegantly simple riffs smashed into one another, atop a cavalcade of blast and d-beats.

It is in this outrageous simplicity that we find the key novelty of Cardiac Arrest’s approach. Cut the fat and in turn cut the burdens of the last thirty years of music history within death metal, and return to first principles. These being the unique qualities found in relentless atonality, the nihilism that supervenes on guitar leads devoid of melodic core, structured on nothing beyond a puritanical commitment to intense energy. The indifference of reality is writ large on every riff we are presented with on ‘The Day That Death Prevailed’.

There is nothing fundamentally new in Cardiac Arrest’s formula; save the advancement of an idea. Half formed Autopsy riffs are forced through the blender of hardcore punk, and smashed into grindcore riffs from the school of Blood and Impetigo, But unlike other similar attempts that trade on an overt dedication to the traditions of old school death metal, there is an almost intimidating degree of focus within this collection of songs, one that succeeds in making plain the virtues of this music far more than many of their contemporaries. The experience is akin to listening to Deicide’s ‘Legion’ for the first time. Although that death metal classic called upon far more music theory and literal complexity to achieve its aim, there was a similar directness of purpose and almost machine-like unity which is also found on TDTDP. The techniques Cardiac Arrest employs to convey this are far more common in death metal than Deicide’s genre defining work, but one has to admire their mastery of the form.

Vocals are a very traditional guttural growl, occasionally augmented by a maniacal outburst, again reminiscent of German grindsters Blood. We are even treated to a spoken word passage on the unexpectedly epic doom piece ‘Plague Ridden Destiny’. But where the rhythmic intrigue drops away on this piece it is made up for by a more sophisticated melodic progression, relative to context of course. The majority of the album by contrast, is both an intense but also interesting survey of that sweet spot between outright blast-beats and d-beats; and how ringing, doom laden chords interact with other strumming techniques when applied to this rigidly consistent approach to scant drum styles.

Of course, this is all put in service of what is ultimately a refreshingly focused approach to an old school style. It takes the very best elements from a handful of styles (and in some cases specific artists) and places them under the microscope. The result is some of the most focused and powerful death metal to be heard from the last few years, one that should be celebrated for its philosophy as much as its resounding success as a piece of music.

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