Mortal quandaries: Infester and Cenotaph

The swirling mass of activity that was death metal in the early 1990s sparked many offshoots and hidden corridors. A plethora of doors were opened almost from the moment of its inception, even if not all were walked through. But much like history itself, a hegemony tends to form around one specific dominant narrative, a collection of agreed upon milestones and players whose actions and legacy take on a degree of solidity, one that begins to look like inevitability when viewed with hindsight. But history is full of many false starts, many odd tangents that were never allowed to reach fruition.

It’s sometimes interesting to speculate on what death metal would look like today if certain artists had gained the following that a Cannibal Corpse or Entombed did at the time. Some offshoots were perhaps too weird to survive, preordained for the dumpster. But redemption can be a beautiful thing. Many long-buried works have been granted a second life thanks to the archival work encouraged in modern fandom. And as a result the picture of yesteryear’s death metal is constantly being revised, revisited. A richer, more complex picture beings to emerge, one that is ultimately far more accurate than the populist narrative would have you believe.

Seattle’s Infester may not be the most obvious outlier sonically, but the more one becomes acquainted with their glum take on American death metal, the more bizarre their sole LP ‘To the Depths, in Degradation’ becomes. Half percussive in the hardcore style of Suffocation, half doomy in the vein of Incantation, the concoction that supervenes on these otherwise commonplace antecedents morphs and mutates upon every listen. Released in 1994, this was something of the apex year for death metal. It had split apart into many noticeably distinct variants, but these had not yet begun to dictate every creative aspect of new releases, with many outlying pieces of data offering freeform, borderline avant-garde interpretations of the form.

Infester’s contribution is famously one of the more overtly horror-based takes on death metal. The production is somewhat understated, with softly distorted guitars unfolding riffs that feel more like suggestions than they do formal musical architecture. The riffs themselves seem to emerge from the ether, not so much introduced by a conscious hand as they are slowly evolved from a primordial soup. They swirl and unfold with a mind of their own, slipping from tight tremolo picked ascensions to low-end drone chords almost as if by accident.

This sense of emergence is important for understanding the genius of ‘To the Depths, in Degradation’. These are complex pieces that slowly rise and fall around one or two central themes. This deviates from typical death metal, which usually hammers out an array of riffs before settling on a narrative arc that will eventually bring the music back to the original riff, bringing a sense of finality and closure after a journey. Infester do follow this pattern at times, but they are equally as likely to unfold a swirling array of near random sequences – defined more by their atmospheric qualities than anything melodic – which will then collapse into a slower central motif of tritones or chromatic riffing replete with rich horror aesthetics. This stops the momentum of the music in its tracks, and forces the listener to ruminate for a while on the gleeful nihilism at the core of this sonic experience.

Drums – whilst a little muffled in the mix – offer a framing devise for this compositional approach. They either further emphasise the percussive qualities of the riffs where necessary, with short lived choppy blast-beats or invasive fills, or else they enhance the atmospheric qualities of the music with relentless crash cymbals and well-placed rhythmic absences. Vocals are of course central to the character of this album. They predominantly stick to a low-end growl in the style of Frank Mullen, but this is frequently spliced with maniacal shrieks and yells of pain that lend ‘To the Depths, in Degradation’ a degree of sincerity and melodrama that immediately sets it apart from more reserved releases.

Infester are completely unselfconscious in their delivery. This is a horror soaked, over the top, immersive, atmospheric piece of death that would simply not work without total commitment from these musicians. In 1994 death metal was still a young person’s game. And whilst we can agree that the majority of canonised releases within the genre emerged in the early 1990s, they were still born of the paradox between audacity and lack of self-assurance that defines youth. By the time Infester released their debut, signs of true maturity for the genre had begun to make themselves known, taking the established raw techniques down new and unexpected avenues. ‘To the Depths, in Degradation’ was one such avenue, one that proved to be lightning in a bottle owing to its rare alchemy of mood and compositional architecture, a balance so hard to replicate in the conscious mind. Thus, much like King Crimson’s ‘Red’, it seems to emerge from the genre’s collective nightmares, an antithesis to an antithesis, challenging the idea of death metal itself to explode its boundaries and realise its untapped and truly horrific potentials.

Alongside The Chasm, Cenotaph stand tall as a pillar of Mexican death metal. But their trajectory has been far from linear. Following a brooding and unique debut, their direction after this point – whilst not terrible – followed a more conventional technical/melodic route in the releases that followed, a path that many chose to take by the mid-1990s as a way to revitalize a floundering genre. But it’s their first offering ‘The Gloomy Reflection of Our Hidden Sorrows’, released in 1992, that concerns us here. Read one way, this album could be seen as an Americanised version of ‘Slumber of Sullen Eyes’. There are the same drab chord progressions formed of loose tritones and only the most subtle dissonance, the same soaring harmonic leads that burst out of the low end to open out the mix, acting as a stand in for keyboards. But beyond these similarities, Cenotaph apply the rhythmic interchanges of North American death metal and use this to contrast with the tension of notes sustained just past comfort. This makes the flow of the album highly unsettling, a restless stop/start of percussive punches punctuated by moments of utter absence.

The production, much like ‘To the Depths, in Degradation’, is a big factor in achieving this effect. The guitars are bass heavy, ghostly, defined more as a presence than the chief musical backbone of these pieces. This can make the riffs in the faster passages hard to follow. But this only serves to heighten their disorientating effects. Drums are sharp and clear, cutting through the mud with much needed focus. The listener finds themselves using the drums and sharp bass tone as an anchor in each track, the only fixed point in an otherwise thoroughly disjointed delivery. Vocals are at one with the bass heavy mix, offering guttural outbursts that only serve to bolster the gut punch of the music.

Despite all the energy that has gone into these pieces, the moments of frantic chaos, the frenetic lead guitars, the busy drums racing to frame the angular structure of the riffs, the overall effect is still sleepy, haunting, evocative of a lurking terror. These are subtle qualities found beyond the simple mechanics of the mixing desk. Cenotaph dilute the chaos of death metal with measured, almost philosophical outbursts of idiosyncratic melodic progression, which are only enhanced by their lawless approach to rhythmic transitions. Once the listener has grown accustomed to the contrast between the lead and rhythm guitar tones, the bizarre melodic shape of the lead melodies becomes apparent. Using unusual ascending scales and twisted harmonic information they wrest the more basic death metal elements from the jaws of chaos and morph it into a structure of malevolent permanence.

It’s akin to a fist fight between Suffocation and Winter. The music wants to embody a sustained blast of atonal, percussive material, but the impulse toward doom is constantly thwarting these attempts, forcing the music to pause and dwell on moments and moods. Cenotaph hold our ears in place, sustaining notes, chords, ideas well beyond the point of comfort, only to slingshot round to a release of faster tempos and conventional power chord riffing. This push and pull takes the best of death metal at the time, and asks it to take stock, to choose the path of most resistance, to evolve into music of longevity and purpose beyond the youthful headiness that had defined to this point.

Listening to both these albums is like looking through a window into a possible history, one that death metal could have taken if events had played out differently. I hesitate to offer an overly optimistic assessment of today after analysing the kernels of ideas found within these two albums, but it seems to me that the clumsy caverncore wonderings and Incantation obsessionists may be a first run at something more sophisticated. An attempt to recapture the malevolent magic of this particular interpretation of death metal. I’m not saying that Spectral Voice or Father Befouled offer much to celebrate in the picture of modern death metal. But the fact that there’s even an appetite and audience for a more reflective and patient direction for the form to take is maybe cause for hope.

In terms of the pick of the week, we are left with a difficult choice. ‘The Gloomy Reflection of Our Hidden Sorrows’ is certainly the more musically dense album. Cenotaph throw a lot of material at the listener, and their emotive range is far broader than Infester. But then, if we look at this purely in terms of having a vision and executing it, there are few albums that could compete with Infester’s ‘To the Depths, in Degradation’. So both receive a hard plug this week, but Infester’s single and singular work is the pick of the two, an undisputed masterwork from the heyday of the genre.

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