I like the beats and I like the yelling: Crucifixion, Welkin, Astriferous

Crucifixion: Desert of Shattered Hopes / A Cold Sea of Horror (2020)

Another gem from the vault is unleashed upon the world by La Caverna records. This time with some vintage death metal from the short lived but unique American outfit known as Crucifixion, and their debut album ‘Desert of Shattered Hopes’ released back in 1993. This one comes with their first demo ‘A Cold Sea of Horror’ originally released back in 1991 for good measure. Much that I’ll say about the album is true of demo in raw, undistilled form; so I’ll keep the discussion broad. Suffice to say the demo is an excellent chance to witness the growth of this artist as they shed certain elements and gain others.

Everything about this release, from the production, the style, and the presentation, screams North American percussive death metal along the lines of Malevolent Creation, with a Gorguts circa ‘Considered Dead’ approach to riff construction. The philosophy is not so much lightning fast technicality as it is an unfolding horror of tentacles that branches out in multiple directions, defined by unpredictable guitars, and drums that seem intent on unsettling their sense of formal rhythm at every turn.

Production itself is an interesting one. On the one hand we have a fairly standard crunchy guitar tone, raw and crisp drums designed to cut through the mulch, and guttural death metal vocals. The latter of which is laced in reverb in a style not unlike Agathocles on ‘Theatric Symbolisation of Life’. Indeed, there is a deathgrind wedge running through the centre of this album. But it’s heart and soul is very much in the technical/progressive death metal of this era, albeit with an undeniably menacing character even by modern standards. It’s a stark reminder of the gems left to discover in the underbelly of the early 90s when now only a handful of releases are still revered. If we take Death of this era for example, who by comparison to ‘Desert of Shattered Hopes’ sounds so off-the-shelf and by the numbers it becomes a wonder why releases like this were overshadowed and all but forgotten.

There is an underlying fudge of atmosphere lurking beneath this mix that gives it a sense of size and grandeur without interfering with our perception of the riffcraft at work. And here we come to the real stars of the show; the malevolent guitars and bass as they unfurl their technical majesty atop this unorthodox foundation. The focus and efficiency of the riffcraft cuts like a razorblade. Standard thrash riffs are worked through a blender of eccentricity as they give way to tritones or off-kilter chord shapes, with the drums’ ever shifting patterns further throwing our perceptions off. The bass proves more than capable of holding its own in this blend, without overwhelming proceedings when it counts. Providing sharp licks and accents at key transitions, it is another weapon in Crucifixion’s armoury when it comes to harnessing this beast, one perpetually pulling itself in conflicting directions. There’s even a bass solo of sorts on the track ‘Binding of Dragons’ that jumps out of the mix and constricts the dominant forces in its alienating musicality.

This album represents some of the best elements from this, the golden era of death metal. It is not overly rambunctious in its desire to cave the listener’s head in with a particular aesthetic or technique. It is broadly speaking technical death metal, but in this pursuit Crucifixion are keen to explore a range of moods and emotions, from the mournful, the solitary, to the singular, and the aggressive. As the album progresses this and much more is unpacked through a proficient and irresistibly esoteric tour of quality death metal riffage.

Welkin: Recollections of Conquest and Horror (2020)

Welkin are a new melodic black metal project fresh out of Singapore. On their debut LP ‘Recollections of Conquest and Horror’ they exemplify the ideal balance between black metal’s affiliation with earthy, grounded punk music and a sharp sense of simple but intuitive melodies. Not unlike a polished Judas Iscariot with more major chords, or a closer comparison would be early Ulver via Finland’s Havukruunu in their frequent lurches from punk rhythms to euphoric tremolo riffs set to tight blast-beats. It’s almost equivalent to modern sea shanties in its naïve yet captivating charm, with the mass appeal of folk music bolstered by a boisterous energy and a pronounced reverie for danger.

‘Recollections of Conquest and Horror’ is telling of some of the more primitive traditions within metal that have gained traction over the years. This primitivism is usually born of necessity, rooted in individual limitations of talent and tech sav (Absurd, Graveland, Judas Iscariot), but true art shines forth regardless. Later generations with more learning and gear to carry it off then re-appropriate the style, playing the same accessible, philosophically folky style, but with a razor sharp sense of timing, melodic progression, production that’s not necessarily cleaner but far more deliberate in its outcome. Whether it’s more talented musicians purposefully limiting themselves to render a style they clearly enjoy playing, or a packaged, processed, synthetic version of more spontaneous antecedents is really besides the point. We see it carried out in microform on this album,. But this tension between the primitive and the capable, and how this plays out in the actual creation of the music, this is a narrative that has dogged black metal of many colours for many years.

Taken on its own, Welkin’s debut is a by the numbers product, designed to tick certain boxes of straightforward melodic black metal, one that takes few risks for the sake of rendering this mass-appeal outcome a reality. The production is raw but not too raw. The riffs are melodic, but not overly complex and certainly do not pretend to the neoclassical leanings of the Swedish school. There’s an undeniable folk backbone running throughout, but not overtly so in the manner of Graveland or Nokturnal Mortum. Then again, to call it basic when we could compare it Judas Iscariot or even Ildjarn in places would be to miss the descriptive mark entirely. No, what we have in ‘Recollections of Conquest and Horror’ is an album that hits the bullseye of pleasing accessibility, excitement without risk, and familiarity without boredom. For that reason we just have to give this album a pass for doing exactly what it says on the tin and nothing more. And by virtue of not standing out at all it ends up standing out as we succumb to the temptation to analyse its wiring, and learn why our hearts are carried along in its hypnotic wake, despite our intellects telling us otherwise.

Astriferous: The Lower Levels of Sentience (2020)

Borrowing Incantation’s penchant for doom and combining this with a European sense of drab melody, the debut EP from these Costa Ricans ‘The Lower Levels of Sentience’ is a satisfyingly original rendition of old school traditions, from musicians with enough knowledge and talent in regards to their subject matter to be a cut above the rest. Their playful yet formal approach to rhythm along with a sufficiently creative approach to blending riff styles results in a work that transcends typical notions of old school revivalism; the work surpasses these surface level aesthetics and becomes a work of compelling death metal without need to reference era.

In a manner similar to early Autopsy, Astriferous produce interesting polyrhythms in their interaction between staccato, almost groovy riffs blended with mid-paced blast-beats. This adds an additional layer of tension and intrigue when set alongside the more rhythmically straight-faced passages. The riffs themselves are impatient and hectic, as if unwilling to settle on a style or mood for long; again this is in line with death metal’s frantic nature as a form of music which consistently toys with rock music’s traditional notions of structure and pacing. This, along with the fairly organic production and deliberately loose drumming that pairs up with guitars only at times of its own choosing comes off sounding somewhere between Autopsy and Suffocation, with no small amount of Demilichian fuckest-uppery thrown into the guitar licks for good measure.

‘The Lower Levels of Sentience’ is pretty relentless in maintaining this barrage of unpredictable riffs, that seem to determined to be a law unto themselves in their insistence on carrying this EP forward, with the guttural vocals and drums simply playing catch up. This is of course meant in a creative sense, as the drums seem to follow in the wake of guitars and clear up the destruction they leave. At key junctures things do let up, most notably on the closing number ‘Necrohallucination’ when things go full Incantation album finale on us, and tense feedback laden doom takes centre stage. This works as a perfect contrast to the lawless chaos of the preceding tracks. As we have destroyed, so something must rise to take its place. And like clockwork, more fluid, straightforward tremolo picked guitars arise from the space that has been left. It may only take twenty minutes to conclude, but this EP has a gripping tale to tell. In a world thick with early 90s DM worship it’s always apparent when one meets an artist with a real appreciation for the craft. Because this shines through into music of real character, and thus renders the old school tag redundant.

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