Dunno about false gods, but I’ll give you a false dilemma. One that crops in the stoner/sludge arena all the time. Bands think they either have to strip away all guitar and vocal melody in favour of…nothing tonally or rhythmically, to compensate; or they think they have to go the other way and cake the whole thing in sickly sweet flowery licks and hammed-up emotive vocals, thus sacrificing all bite and power. Well, obviously this is simplistic. Many achieve one the other of these extremes with mild success. Many walk down the middle and still manage to boring as arseholes. American (False) Gods, on their debut LP ‘No Symmetry…Only Delusion’, buck these tired trends through some modest but noteworthy choices.
Here we have an earthy, throbbing, dirty collection of sludge tracks that invites comparison to Beastwars or Desert Storm, in that the dirtiness is tempered somewhat with subtle but fleshed out melodic hooks. But more importantly, these hooks are not mere nods intended to buck the monotony, but form the very core of how these tracks are built: from the ground up. The guitars have a meaty tone to them, but still feel authentically DIY. Much like the drums, which have that practice studio reverb sound that makes us feel like we’re listening to these guys in a small backroom of a bar (one day, this is 2020 after all). The guitars are then set the task of focusing the bread and butter of standard sludge riffs formed of power chords towards the real stars of the show, the simple yet effective melodies that take shape over this solid groundwork.
This could be as simple as applying a clean guitar tone to sing above the heaviness, or working the riffs into a melodic core that drives the whole piece forward. Vocals also operate in this strange but exciting middle ground between full distortion without any melodic potential, and powerful clean singing that offers the music another dimension to explore as it interacts with the more basic riffs, reframing the entire context of the music as required. Equally pleasing is the degree of focus that False Gods show in this regard. There is no wasted space on this album. No overly indulgent jams that always sound more fun to play than to listen to, and no extended interludes of dark ambient or guitar feedback that take us nowhere. Because the riffs and the vocals take us on the journey without the need for any other accompaniment, this relatively short album feels longer precisely because the tracks are dense by sludge metal’s typically sparse standards.
From an opening riff on ‘Enemy Territory’ that sounds suspiciously like Autopsy’s ‘Twisted Mass of Burnt Decay’ to a soaring, epic finale on the closing number ‘An Eternity of Failure’, that outdoes all of Pallbearer’s useless meanderings for emotional catharsis; it’s refreshing to see a sludge band pack in so much diversity and range into a short work that still feels strikingly focused. A triumph of subtle originality as much as it the successful harnessing of a broad range of influences into something still very much its own beast.
Barrelling in with a bolt of pure thrashing energy, Belgium’s Schizophrenia cut all the unnecessary fat away with their debut EP ‘Voices’. This takes its cues from Teutonic thrash – particularly Kreator – right around the time they started to diversify their rhythmic palette after ‘Terrible Certainty’. This is done by blending the jagged chaos inherent in this primitive iteration of the style and melding it with a heavy dose of influence from Tampa, when the scene was still in genesis. Pure chaos is blended with a greater variety of riff styles and intricate song structures. The vocals stick with a mid-ranged death growl that would be happy in either style.
I say the structures are intricate because the runtime is tight as fuck, with absolutely no wasted space or unnecessary preamble to any of these tracks. The production reflects the decision to offer no gimmick or hook for the listener beyond hard hitting thrash that relies solely on the dynamism of riffs and their relationship to one another. The drums are clear and cutting in the mix. Although building an ever-shifting rhythmic foundation, each pattern and fill is bang on the beat, with no hint of swing or groove or any deviation from the requirements of rigid tempos.
In their energetic and relentless interaction with the drama of the guitars, this makes for a stripped down but engaging centrepiece to the Schizophrenia appeal. There are some short-lived solos and guitar leads that leap out from time to time, but aside from that we are given nothing else in the way of distraction or adornment to the gut punch of riff salads that stream past our ears. It’s basic, it operates at the level of fundamentals for death/thrash metal, but Schizophrenia paint such a vivid picture with this attack of dual guitars, relentless drums, and yes, even a well-timed bass lick here and there.
On their first demo ‘Septic Decadence’, Septage have achieved a sound that feels like it is in conflict with itself. Judging by the track titles, the Carcass ripoff/tribute cover art, the name of the band, the overall aura we are presented with, we’d assume we’re in for a slab of straight up goregrind. But no, aside from the blocked plug vocals and a couple of short to-the-point numbers, this demo is pretty sophisticated death metal; like a technical Autopsy. Whether it’s goregrind striving for additional dimensions, or death metal attempting to strip itself of all intellectual aspiration, is really by the way. This is frantic, chromatic, dense death metal that calls to mind Sadistic Drive’s first album ‘Anthropophagy’ for a similar work that attempts to hide its own sophistication behind a dirty aesthetic.
The production is actually pretty clean, with a guitar tone rendered clean enough to do justice to the intricacy of the off-kilter riffs. Drums are also clear and tight, operating as a law unto themselves, forcing the guitars, already articulating odd and unorthodox riff shapes, through a bizarre grinder of tempo changes. It’s only really the vocals that go full goregrind, operating at the guttural range, losing the lyrics to the wind (although we can probably guess their general thrust based on the track titles).
With that in mind, ‘Septic Decadence’ turns out to be a pleasant surprise. Not only is it well crafted, dirty death metal, it also offers some engaging and oddball choices that keep one guessing. It’s not technical in an in-your-face way, rather using this to service the mire of droll, alienating riffs. Nor is it overly keen to exhibit its idiosyncrasies in the form of cheap novelty. There are certainly some grind riffs thrown in, but they used as a link between passages of sophisticated chromatic riff building, underpinned by drums that are just as happy to blast as they are to offer a back-beat. A refreshingly straightforward release that smuggles in plenty of layers of complexity and talking points beneath the primal veneer.