I like the beats and I like the yelling: Mortify, Astral Tomb, Order of Nosferat

Mortify: Fragments at the Edge of Sorrow
Out 25th March on Chaos Records

Death metal is a genre stretched to breaking point. OSDM may finally be showing signs of decline now that even the likes of Blood Incantation are looking to other cultural archetypes to strip and sell for parts. But recent counter measures tailored toward death metal evolving itself all too often wind up in a dead-end of pseudo esoteric self-indulgence. Cooking analogies may be a little over used in music chat, but looking at Mortify’s latest full length ‘Fragments at the Edge of Sorrow’, one cannot help but wonder how a group of different artists can work with practically the same ingredients and come up with such varying results.

All the familiar calling cards are here, Morbid Angel, Gorguts, The Chasm, but Mortify have whipped them up into a musical experience with sentience, a voice, a purpose. This is weird death metal in a similar way to how ‘Soulside Journey’ was weird death metal, in that any technical, progressive, or avant-garde elements feel merely incidental and without contrivance, placed there for the sake of immersing the listening in an uncanny world of curiosities, chasmic avenues, bizarre sonic tangents and distressing textural philosophies. One gets the feeling this is the experience Horrendous were aiming for on ‘Idol’ had they the compositional chops to pull off.

‘Fragments at the Edge of Sorrow’ poses as an OSDM album but is in reality anything but. The production embodies that soft, sludgy character of the Morrisound era with depths of atmosphere articulated via massive, layered lead guitar tones, echoey vocals, and subdued ambient interludes. Drums are soft and subtle, consistent whilst retain an organic aesthetic. Guitars are equally so, as if skipping the last thirty years of digital compression and reaching straight back to a more modest yet creative era of spacious, open mixes. This also allows the intricate bass work plenty of cut through, even working in a number of imaginative leads in a manner reminiscent of Crucifixion’s ‘Desert of Shattered Hopes’. Vocals are a solid combination of mid-range guttural growling and high-end monstrosities that fit the music’s ebbing, undulating swings in mood perfectly.  

There are elements of ‘Fragments at the Edge of Sorrow’ that could be called progressive, but I would not have this down as a progressive death metal album. And that’s fundamentally the reason why this is such a joyful listen. It does not seek to appeal to any particular branch of the familiar tree, it simply reminds the audience that death metal in its purest state was once a highly ambitious and deeply revolutionary form of contemporary music. And with enough imagination and will, and working with much the same ingredients we always have done, one can still give rise to something truly novel.

‘Fragments at the Edge of Sorrow’ is a work of sonic ambiguity, a bizarre, malformed universe of phantasmagorias and fragmented musical shards. Odd key and time signatures, chromatic play, tritones, clashes of tempo and novel harmonic interplay all factor into this recipe. But Mortify have clearly mapped out a lengthy recipe in order to properly ascertain where each element should be deployed, and in what order. As with many great albums, this is an act of world building that makes the listener forget about their preoccupations with genre, subgenre, the politics of technique, and the stylistic burdens of history. It overcomes all this in order to reiterate what we already knew about death metal over all the noise of its current existential dualism: the tools and ingredients to create with total freedom and resolve are already there, it just takes someone with a little knowledge and imagination to breathe new and terrible life into these dormant facets once again.  

Astral Tomb: Soulgazer
Out 25th March on Blood Harvest

Denver’s death metal upstarts Astral Tomb land their debut this March with an album well tailored to fit Blood Harvest’s current roster of future minded metal. ‘Soulgazer’ is a bizarre reflecting pool of death metal’s oddly tangential recent history. Looking at their contribution to the ‘Chasm of Aeons’ split in 2020, Astral Tomb have apparently been inspired by the current trend for Timeghoul worship but couldn’t help but develop a voice of their own in the process. ‘Soulgazer’ looks like an attempt by Astral Tomb to write their own version of ‘Hidden History of the Human Race’, making this album a copy at least twice removed from the original source material.

But there’s something to the over-excited enthusiasm rampant across this album that makes it oddly compelling, it may be a twice removed copy of a copy, but that does not make it twice as bad by any measure. It should also be noted that Astral Tomb are revoltingly young. About the same age, in fact, that many of death metal’s old guard were when they started cranking out demos in the mid-1980s. And just like death metal’s old guard, Astral Tomb’s approach is an interesting concoction of imitation and brash disregard for agreed norms that makes youthful contributions to music scenes such a vital component of their longevity

Structurally and thematically there’s no getting away from the Blood Incantation comparison. Astral Tomb attempt to whip up a similar concoction of ‘Obscura’ style percussive riffing alongside clean breakdowns with off kilter arpeggios and soaring, spacey lead harmonies. Vocals are equally guttural and reverb drenched, working more as low-end sirens than an entity with rhythmic potential for the most part. The production is a little on the lo-fi side by modern death metal standards, but there’s still clarity and clout aplenty for listeners to sink their teeth into.

But where all these element in Blood Incantation were an uncanny postmodern phantasm – made all the more disingenuous by the fact they are humans and not in fact an AI – Astral Tomb sound like a band with blood (yep) coursing through their veins. Their riff style is already clearly defined, and can be mapped out across these five tracks with ease. They circle and repeat themes, ruminating on one simplistic idea by adding subtle variations with each repetition, layers, dissonance, stilts and starts in tempo.

Solos are also characterised by unadulterated enthusiasm, leaping from chaotic fretboard murder to novel harmonic shapes and curious rhythmic punches. The drums, although a little underserved by the rough and ready mix, excel at brief, mid-paced patterns that extend breakdowns beyond the remit of what good taste would usually allow. But this only furthers the image of a band young enough to care little for the dictates of convention, focused solely on stamping their mark on the world.

Disjointed, cluttered, circular, unfocused, sure all these things could be said about ‘Soulgazer’. But beneath this there is a new face of sci-fi themed death metal emerging to stand next to the likes of a Cryptic Shift, one that warrants some scrutiny in the years to come. Astral Tomb may have a long way to go in terms of finesse, but after album number one they have achieved far more than many older bands with decades of experience under their belts: they have a voice of their own and they are able to communicate this to an audience when it really counts. For that and that alone we should probably pay attention.

Order of Nosferat: Nachtmusik
Out 21st of March on Purity Through Fire

It’s spring 2022, the birds are chirping, flowers are blooming, and the sun’s golden rays are smiting the earth with their mystical, rejuvenating force. The perfect time to dig into some ice cold vampiric black metal. Order of Nosferat are now on album number three in the space of just over a year. Normally such wanton proliferation is cause for concern, but the brand of lo-fi, catchy black metal this Finnish/German duo are churning out is just the right combination of addictive and utterly harmless that ‘Nachtmusik’ is just so much meat for the grinder.

Despite calling back to the likes of Black Funeral and the Les Légions Noires crowd, Order of Nosferat offer a highly accessible take on this otherwise proudly obscurantist music. The guitars are thin, the drums a little tinny, the vocals high and animalistic, but all of these elements are dialled back to allow the music to show a little leg of accessibility. Not that this is a bad thing by any measure, anyone well versed in Black Funeral’s back catalogue will know the consequences of allowing stylistic nihilism full lease. But it does render ‘Nachtmusik’ a completely risk free listening experience, a fun romp down some familiar trails for old time’s sake.

Tonally, Order of Nosferat strike the right balance between aggression, mourning, pathos, and catharsis, keeping the melodic character of the riffs just on the right side of overt sentimentality. They work in a subtle underlayer of keyboards to elevate the classic gothic themes woven into this aesthetic. They have also retained the lengthy ambient interludes from their previous effort ‘Arrival of the Plague Bearer’ which function as a welcome compliment to the tasteful melodrama of the metal tracks.

For the most part Order of Nosferat keep things mid-paced, rarely resorting to blast-beats and the usual wash of wintry noise to carry these tracks from one segment to the next. Despite their clear passion for the originators of vampiric black metal, their hearts seem to be a in a far more commercial place, working out flowery melodic refrains, singable riffs, and a rich tapestry of instrumentation to soften the blow of any residual raw black metal aesthetic.

We can give these guys credit for doing what they love and doing it well. The accessible elements of this music are not a detriment in themselves. But it feels like we are assessing a sandwich as opposed to an intricately prepared main meal. We’ve had many like it before but it is a good sandwich, and we certainly didn’t come to it looking for a new experience. Order of Nosferat are not about pushing boundaries. They just want to keep the flame of popularist gothic infused black metal burning and they excel in this capacity. But for those seeking a truly bracing form of cuisine, look elsewhere.  

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