The best of death metal is notoriously fleeting, with today’s canon still chiefly consisting of releases from a brief moment in time when the stars aligned in the early 1990s. Of the two artists discussed today, there has been much speculation as to their possible artistic direction had they endured. Would they have unseated their more commercially successful peers? Would they have fundamentally contributed to our commonly held understanding of death metal today? And most importantly, would death metal be all the better for their sustained input into the evolution of the form?
Fascinating as these questions are, I cannot help but wonder if these artists were so unique by virtue of their very briefness. In the carefree world of the early to mid-1990s, when death metal had reached a state of maturity mixed with bacchanalian arrogance in regards to its own creative potential, all manner of curious sonic specimens were offered to posterity. But one cannot help but look at the regrettable destinations arrived at by the artists that did stick it out – Therion, At the Gates, Deicide – who certainly offered unique interpretations of death metal in their formative years before succumbing to self-parody, and we are forced to conclude that a similar fate may have awaited Eulogy and Molested had they remained on the scene. Speculation aside, why not dive into the work we do have of theirs for a more in depth appraisal of what makes these releases special.
Something of a forgotton child of Tampa death metal, Eulogy’s sole EP ‘The Essence’ remains a tantalising treat for all those who stumble upon it. Unlike the countless other throwaway EPs to emerge throughout the 1990s, ‘The Essence’ embodies the fruition of many ideas within death metal at the time, encapsulating both intrinsically engaging music and a unique interpretation of the death metal philosophy at this time. The obvious comparison often drawn is Morbid Angel, and with good reason. But whilst its certainly true that Trey’s fingerprints are all over this music, Eulogy seem to split apart his approach to riffing, sending it off in competing directions in the process. These tracks are both slower and more deliberative than Morbid Angel circa 1993, and yet somehow denser and busier. Each individual element is smaller, each refrain and segment lasts for only a few bars, but they are returned to enough times and in sequential order with neighbouring refrains as to create metanarratives that become apparent with repeated and listens.
The same is true of Eulogy’s choice of tempos. The tracks themselves feel slow, plodding, like a vast behemoth emerging from the earth. But when one actually listens to the play off between drums and guitars, the tempo shifts around a lot, but rarely to mid-paced or thrashing speeds, it’s either full on blast-beats or slow doom metal pacing. This disorientating flexing up and flexing down of time works in conspiracy with the unpredictable and meandering riffs – many of which seem to exist in microcosm – to create an alienating and chaotic listen that nevertheless feels slow and deliberative if one focuses on the manner in which these tracks are pieced together.
‘The Essence’ is also a good example of how death metal was taking its first steps into a larger world of musical expression at this point. If albums like ‘Cause of Death’ and ‘Mental Funeral’ provided the groundwork for our understanding of the typical elements for this style, artists like Eulogy were pointing the way forward for the genre to succeed as a form of experimental music on top of these more pedestrian foundations. The obvious example of this that immediately hits the listener round the head is the ghostly female vocals that greet us on the title track, both calling to mind Celtic Frost but also metal’s affinity for the dark romanticism of Dead Can Dance.
But the point also applies to the underlying architecture of ‘The Essence’, the unconventional approach to tonality, the stilted and unfocused structure to each piece, the near schizophrenic attitude to rhythm. All would be well enough on their own, but they are granted greater meaning and significance because Eulogy are not just throwing out material and breaking musical taboos for the sake of provocation. There is an internal logic and overarching message baked within this endeavour, one that gives death metal its longevity as a legitimate artform whilst making it a deceptively complex form of music to master. One that sadly many so called trailblazers of the contemporary picture have not quite grasped.
‘Blod-Draum’, the sole LP from Norway’s Molested, has received something of a retroactive popularity in recent years. Caught up in both the modern fascination with authentic old school death metal and of course the popularity of Øystein Brun’s subsequent project Borknagar, this singular album is truly something to behold. Released in 1995 it came at the cusp of death metal’s maturation, which happened to coincide with its steepest decline in popularity and legitimacy. Where albums like ‘Nespithe’, ‘Unquestionable Presence’, and ‘The Red in the Sky is Ours’ paved the way, ‘Here in After, ‘Diabolical Conquest’, and ‘Millennium’ were able to build upon. But of the latter group, offerings were too few and underrecognized to salvage the genre in the face of rampant commercialisation and the growing appetite for groove or alt metal.
And right at the heart of this crossroads of aspiring intellectualism vs. the impetus for dumbing music down into a digestible package, sits Molested’s ‘Blod-Draum’, emerging from Norway of all places, at the height of black metal’s ongoing controversies. It’s worth pointing this out because the character of riffing found on this album is an interesting blend of black and death metal philosophies which would now be considered commonplace, but here at their germinal strike the listener as strangely uncanny. There’s a lot of crossover with Finnish death metal on ‘Blod-Draum’, tonally it comes across as a meeting of Demigod meets Suffocation, with a good dollop of Demilichian weirdness thrown in for good measure. But further study of the riffs reveals harmonic material closer to black metal and later pagan offshoots with a decidedly death metal aesthetic. Think early Aeturnus as played by Demilich.
The album is littered with traditional melodic progressions to offset the atonality of death metal, this gives the music a heroic and epic undertone that sits beneath the destructive nihilism of the immediate presentation. This idea is only furthered when the Norwegian folk breakdowns emerge, bombastic, jaunty, and utterly unperturbed by the aggression of the music that surrounds it. They also leave their mark on the metallic instrumentation that follows. The fiddles, as if succumbing to a final collapse, take their bow with one grating, sustained note before the guitars kick back in with a new heroic impetus, packing in recognisable melodic structures that have been chopped up and disfigured by death metal’s relentless demands for the non-linear.
As droning mouth harps kick in on the title track, the guitars step aside entirely, leaving nothing but relentless blast-beats and bittersweet fiddle loops forming a surprisingly avant-garde centrepiece to the album, sandwiched between death metal that contains both nihilism and the desire for longevity packed within its meandering rhythmic patterns and constant reaffirmations of its own narrative teleology.
Both these releases are prime examples of death metal taking its first steps into a larger world, and finding ways to twist, bend and break the formulas of what had come before whilst staying true to the idea that music must still carry an underlying message and meaning beyond the sum of its parts. Both – owing to the short lifespans of each artist – are also indicative of the problems that were to plague death metal by the late 1990s and beyond. Such ambition is bound to be unsustainable in the long run. The audience is small by definition. The number of minds able to carry out these artistic visions even smaller, smaller still are those able to produce sustained output of such a standard. So both receive a strong plug this week as music not just to go back to and enjoy, but also as instructional manuals for where death metal may be taken in the years to come. But if we’re deciding on a pick of the week it will have to be Molested, by virtue of it being just a touch more on the idiosyncratic side for my tastes.