I like the beats and I like the yelling: AthanaTheos, Ritual Mass, Dominion of Suffering

AthanaTheos: Prophetic Era (or how Yahveh Became the One) (out 29th June 2020)

French death metallers AthanaTheos’ second LP ‘Prophetic Era (or how Yahveh Became the One)’ pertains to be a heady concept album exploring the rise and rise of the Judeo-Christian deity known as Yahweh, God’s true name; which Christians don’t typically say out loud on account of all that holiness (unless Richard Dawkins has anything to do with it). Jesting aside however, never mind what this album pertains to be, AthanaTheos have all but succeeded in creating a grand and complex statement of epic metal in the tradition of The Chasm and (early) Septic Flesh.

The production – rather paradoxically – bucks the trend of recent years in that it sounds coldly modern, there is a digital quality to the mixing of the guitars, and the drums (at least the bass drum) might be triggered. But all of this is actually to the credit of the album. There is enough emotion and creativity to this music that it oozes more character out of every pore than ninety percent of old school resurrectionists showcasing a more analogue aesthetic. The brand of death metal AthanTtheos trade in lends itself to the clarity of a crisp mix in order for the listener to garner the depth to the riffs, the spaces between them, and the interplay of the guitars and drums as they complement and comment on each other. It’s not overwhelmingly technical or overtly progressive, but the layers of music and composition take some digesting in their romantic majesty.

I make no secret of my disinterest for overworked concept albums; this is usually for two main reasons. One is that more often than not they are deployed to cloak a lack of creativity on the artist’s part. The second reason being that music shouldn’t have a reading list. If you enjoy the album great, if you fancy checking out the amateur academia the artist applied to their lyrics even better, but more often than not this is placed before the craft of music itself. AnathaTheos have dodged this particular bullet somewhat, as the album is highly accomplished whether you’re interested in Judeo-Christian religions or not (but seriously, as someone that’s no stranger to academia…just go read some Nietzsche).

All that being said, AthanaTheos have a mastery over their music that they have managed to weave around this lofty subject matter. But on top of that they have captured the more intangible horror of religious devotion through the music itself. The riffs themselves seem tailored towards creating an unassailable doom; not in the sense of slow metal music, but in the revolving chord sequences that are battered from all sides by dissonant leads or blunt atonality at one end, and smooth, extended tom rolls and crashing cymbals at the other. Urgency and amorality collide against a foreboding knowledge of the end. They have captured both the essence of Christianity as a cult obsessed with death, a set of viral ideas that brought about one global catastrophe after another, and continues to this day to severely hamper the advancement of human flourishing and knowledge. They have also brought to the fore the creeping horror of this process, calling to mind a covert alien invasion by brainwashing the population.

One example of how this is done should help to illustrate the point. The opening number ‘Samaria’ is a slow burn made up of palm muted riffs complemented by those mournful, almost beautiful guitar leads, but the whole thing is anchored to a marching tempo and a militaristic, marching band approach to snare. This invokes in the mind of the listener the idea of an inevitable procession of history, the march of death, which if the keys were major and the structure triumphant would engender a very different emotional response than the persistent convoy to doom we are presented with. It is to Athanatheos’ credit that they are able to harness the language of music in this way, and craft these energetic riffs that brook no hope or light at the end of the tunnel regardless. An impressive achievement that stands head and shoulders above many of their contemporaries.

Vocals sit very much in the tradition of death metal. Occasionally complemented by some very deadpan clean singing which again add to the creeping despair of religious fervour that Anathatheos are clearly aiming for. All this makes for a unique and refreshingly meditative piece of epic death metal, exemplifying and perfecting a sophisticated and mature approach to the form that I thought we’d lost back in the late 1990s.

Ritual Mass: Abhorred in the Eyes of God (2019)

Pittsburgh death metal newcomers Ritual Mass’s debut EP was released in 2019. Mining the crunchy NYC style albeit at slower tempos than the hardcore school, they combine this with the unpredictable grind energy of UK death metal back in the late 1980s. Dicing up the riff steak with some cuts of thrash to throw into the mix, and we have a competent slab of old school death metal that somehow feels more refreshing than others dredging up this style of late.

The reason is possibly that Ritual Mass are emphasising aspects of American death metal that tend to get overlooked for the sake of focusing on specific aesthetics from the old school and stretching the gag out to an album’s worth of material. By contrast, Ritual Mass take a broader (but not unfocused) approach. For instance the hardcore bounce of early Suffocation is interrupted by a thrash riff, or the d-beat passage is given new context when followed by an Incantation style tremolo picked refrain. The production is also – despite being fat as fuck – very broad for this brutal, American style. But brutality is brought to heal by cavernous undertones, which are especially brought into sharp relief when guitar leads jump out and the tempo slows. It wouldn’t be fitting to call them solos, as they’re really just a few sustained notes designed to give the music space and bring the chaos to the fore.

On the whole this is a well thought out EP that stands ahead of many in a similar style. This is for the simple reason that care and knowledge has been taken in the study of their influences. Ritual Mass have delved a little deeper into what makes this brand of death metal appealing, beyond mere surface level aesthetics that so many apparent old school revivalists seem to limit their knowledge to.

Dominion of Suffering: The Birth of Hateful Existence (2020)

Following in the legacy of Antaeus via Teitanblood, Dominion of Suffering are a brand new project out of Slovakia with a refreshingly concise message to impart to the world on their debut LP ‘The Birth of Hateful Existence’. I say refreshingly concise pretty much because this album is short, yet it achieves more than many operating on the same terrain of grinding black metal, with some supplementary death metal riffs thrown in for good message. This is for the simple reason that Dominion of Suffering do not get waylaid by the constant need to batter the listener with dirty blast-beats and riffs made incomprehensible by the wall of noise approach to production.

On that note, the production here is relatively clear and crisp. The drums are sharp, perfectly designed to cut through the busy guitar work. Again, the guitars are not too heavy on the bass, giving the listener full view of the different strands of history that Dominion of Suffering are calling upon. Sweeping black metal tritone play is interrupted by an Incantation riff, followed by unfolding dissonance, and even some hardcore punk riffs thrown in the mix to break up the breakneck tempos further. Vocals are also a mixed bag. Switching from aggression to meditative spoken word not unlike Attila, these are then complemented by traditional black metal wailing, usually unleashed when the music picks up the pace and approaches blast-beat territory. But ultimately, it is how all these things build and flow into one another, and coalesce around an epic whole that makes this album stand out.

It’s not just grind for the sake of grind, and it’s not just dissonance for the sake of dissonance. Dominion of Suffering have a story to tell and no individual aesthetic is permitted to obstruct this objective. Tracks follow a similar structure which is made all the more rewarding by the minor tweaks they make to this approach on each repetition. The opening will usually be a chaotic audio assault. This is then interrupted by some tempo play, either swirling dissonance in the Icelandic style of Carpe Noctem or Svautidaudi. This is usually where we see the most diversity and experimentation on the part of the guitars and vocals, and alienating and abrasive refrains jump out from all sides, offset by driving mid-paced drums. These are eventually tied together into the finale which is signalled by a shift to blast-beats, tremolo picking, and vocals becoming higher pitched, more intense, with no subtle amount of reverb applied to give it that cavernous feel for good measure.

Although this music is frantic by nature, which goes some way to explaining how Dominion of Suffering have managed to pack so many elements into such a short space of time, it is noteworthy when contrasting an album like this with one of a similarly abrasive vein that trades on that and that alone. ‘The Birth of Hateful Existence’ has an aesthetic which is at the forefront throughout. But Dominion of Suffering have worked this into a musical statement, and do not let themselves become completely transfixed by the cruel charms of dark, grinding black metal, and assumed that an album can get by on its musical characteristics alone. They have to be worked into a greater whole, that takes time to build one idea on top of the next. And with a little finesse the end result can be a sweeping, epic piece of metal that appeals on a broader emotional and intellectual range than would otherwise be the case.

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