I like the beats and I like the yelling: Abyssum, Helgast, Devotion

Abyssum: Poizon of God (Reissued by The Sinister Flame 2021, originally released 2008)

Abyssum gets a highly deserving reissue from The Sinister Flame, who have released the Guatemalan’s second album ‘Poizon of God’ in January this year. As if to directly contrast with Relapse Records’ obsessive preoccupation with chucking out recordings of old Death gigs, The Sinister Flame demonstrate the real value of the reissue. This demonstrates the grassroots passion found in true underground labels to scour the recent past for releases that were left behind by history’s relentless march. No doubt in the case of Abyssum, geography is no small factor in the unceremonious burial of their work, Guatemala not being a household name in black metal circles. ‘Poizon of God’ certainly passed me by back in 2008. So why is this album in particular worth such a resurrection?

Abyssum immediately strikes one as a kindred spirit of other peripheral black metal projects born of the mid to late 90s, both after the initial boom of the genre and geographically peripheral to Scandinavian and North American strongholds. ‘Poizon of God’ is a showcase of obscure black metal’s strong suits: the oh-so lo-fi mix, the thin washy guitars, the tinny, almost ghostly presence of the drums, the ghoulish vocals completely at ease in their world, the ethereal, distant presence of the keyboards filling out the gaps in the sound. All this immediately calls to mind earlier efforts from Ungod, Veles, Graveland, Yamatu, and Xibalba.

The keyboards act as our guide and introduction to the album itself and usually lead us into each track. They set the mood, and blueprint the basic harmonic progression that the rest of the music will follow. When the guitars kick in they follow chord progressions that are fairly standard for black metal, switching between gently distorted arpeggios and laid back tremolo strummed riffs, relying on the foggy texture of the guitar tone itself to evolve the musical artefacts into something that is more than the sum of its parts. Drums are perhaps the most aggressive instrument on display. When not frantically blasting in the background they offer a near constant battering of crash cymbals and choppy fills that works in direct contrast to the delicate melodic functions of each track, as if daring the music into urgency.

Vocals are an odd mix of traditional black metal stylings and near spoken word narration articulated through a rasping, goblinoid tone. This lends credence to this album being a journey through a dreamlike realm, at once alluring in the manner of a child’s fantasy world, but also fraught with jeopardy. The near constant refreshing of each track born of the unique interaction between the guitars and synths drives the music forward into new melodic passages. They engage in a compelling dance of call and response that seems to operate on its own unique sense of meter and rhythm, with the drums acting as arch disruptor in the delicate ballet of instrumentation.

One other important star of this show to note is the use of emptiness. The mix is literally empty at the centre, with no warm rhythm guitar and present-but-largely-negligible bass. But more importantly the use of dramatic pauses, and moments where keyboards or an acoustic guitar are the only entities left to carry the music forward, yet the drums and distorted guitars still dominate the sound by the sheer weight of their absence. Emptiness can be a powerful tool, whether a dramatic pause, or the contrast of full and rich sounds with ghostly tones that feel hollow at the centre. The paradox of ‘Poizon of God’ is the fact that it is an album rich with musical ideas, yet conveying that sense of emptiness, or the apparition of a world just out of reach, half-formed beyond our imagination.

Helgast: Tentacled Divinity (2021)

At first glance, ‘Tentacled Divinity’ – the latest LP from the Greek outfit known as Helgast – submits to the official rulebook of brutal/technical death metal. The crunchy guitar tone, the synthetic drum philosophy reaching its fruition in the form of a drum machine, the Lovecraftian lyrical themes, and of course the choppy, hyper fast arrangements that make up most of these tracks. But on closer analysis, it becomes clear that although superficially Helgast are following the rules, the tracks themselves seem to take on a strange life of their own. Riffs develop only to repeat in new and mangled phrases and variations in a manner fitting of the “weirdness” required for anyone lifting inspiration from the elder master of weird tales, H.P. Lovecraft himself.

The guitar tone offers a degree of distortion that overwhelms the mix with a throbbing pulse during the faster passages. But plenty of clarity is retained to articulate the intricacy of the lead riffs even as tempos reach their apex. The drum machine is possibly the key source of this throbbing undertone that pervades the whole album. Often the kick-drums are set to BPMs at the very limits or betond that of human capability, and when this percussive assault interacts with the guitars it creates this underlying hum. The result itself is not unpleasant, and actually lends the music some gravitas, as if our speakers are simply not capable of translating the intensity and density of the sonic artefacts carried within this album into a sound that makes sense to the human ear. The vocals – in keeping with the theme of otherworldly horror – are guttural and distorted but covered in echoey reverb, opening out the size and scale of the music.

Despite the pronounced mechanical inflections that define the raw materials found on ‘Tentacled Divinity’, the riffs are laced together in idiosyncratic orders and travel in disorientating meanderings. All of which is entirely fitting for the subject matter. Many of the tracks start out fairly typically for technical death metal, with a sense of urgency and a clutter of ideas. However, Helgast will then select one half formed fragment or lick from this cacophony, one that blasted by in moments initially. This discarded unit is then repurposed to expand the entire track as it progresses, usually through repetition with subtle variations laced throughout. The original riffs that we took to be the central theme of the track were discarded, only later to have their revenge by cutting into the soaring repetitious and unfolding expanse by making a return midway through the track and cutting the heart out of the ensuing euphoria.

Other tracks are a slower burn, with some clean guitar intros and slow, meditative builds. But they all exhibit this sense of drama by playing out a literal conflict between the riffs and themes. They do not work in harmony together to build a narrative, but actively cut across each other’s narrative, as if the tracks themselves are a warzone of competing musical features all struggling for dominion over sound itself. Atonality and melody are both willing participants in this sonic representation of the will to power. This means that even the most generic moments of ‘Tentacled Divinity’ are fraught with tension as one is never quite sure which iterations and refrains will rise triumphant nor in what manner they will triumph. An intriguing work of off-kilter death metal that does justice to its Lovecraftian subject matter.

Devotion: The Harrowing (2021)

Death metal comes in many guises. Sometimes it’s a brittle, complex beast with many hardened angles and fragile fragments breaking and seperating in droves. Sometimes it’s a slimy, dank entity, with undulating proboscises and cloying tentacles. And sometimes it’s a heavily armoured tank, blazing an unstoppable trail, crushing all before it and lobbing projectiles and artillery in all directions. The new LP from Valencia’s Devotion is a prime example of the latter. Think Bolt Thrower, Asphyx, and Cianide, that is the general colour scheme ‘The Harrowing’ has been rendered with. That being said, Devotion work in some atmospheric drabness, understated gothic sensibilities, and brief flashes of dark ambience that lend an undertone of menace and drama to this weighty beast.

Production is as you would expect for this stripe of death metal; plebs – with their reliably efficient ability to repurpose language – would call it “fat”. The guitar tone strikes the balance between carrying its lumbering weight through each track, but does so with an energy and precision that does justice to the taught and changeable rhythms. Vocals also embody this dichotomy between bass-centric weight and surgical exactness in execution. Large portions of the music are after all atonal, making rhythm and tempo play – even the fairly rudimentary kind found on ‘The Harrowing’ – all the more important. Drums offer a throbbing pulse beneath it all. By accenting the basics of time keeping and forcing the guitars’ immense bulk into new tempos and staccato/legato contrasts they prove to be an unsung motivator of pacing. Signalling new phrases and saving the doom-laden passages from their own inertia.

But this whistle stop tour of ‘The Harrowing’s raw materials provides only the most superficial picture of what this album is hiding. To this style of lumbering, driving, mid-paced death metal they inject some much-needed gloom. As mentioned, there are plenty of minimalist dark ambient interludes that break up the metal tracks. But Devotion also make effective use of subtle synths and soaring guitar leads to elevate the raw primitivism of the rest of the music. At times these features burst out of the atonal barrage of death metal riffage in a manner that appears totally out of character. Until the more typical elements constituted of power chords catch up with the demands of these new melodic directives.

Other times they build in ways that seem entirely expected and intuitive, but are no less rewarding. On tracks such ‘Demon Sleep’ for instance, which crafts a wonderful drama of contrasting motivations and musical traditions – namely Bolt Thrower style death metal with a melodic, gothic doom flavour – into a wonderfully epic finale. Other tracks are more subtle, but they nevertheless bolt down the raw energy of the throbbing death metal riffs with the melancholia of gentle keyboards or doom metal leanings. This makes ‘The Harrowing’ a death metal album born of more generic antecedents, but ends in a place entirely of its own; somewhere between the epic death metal of early Amorphis, My Dying Bride, and blackened doom metal. Yet it still manages to retain an overarching unity of purpose and intent. A surprisingly compelling triumph of the “new” alongside a grandiose refreshing of the “old”.

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