Sunday, September 30, 2018

Archspire - Relentless Mutation

Omae wa mou shindeiru...

Like many fans of unabashed extremity, I bought into the tech death craze of the late 2000s really hard.  And like 99% of the people who bought into it, I fell out of it fairly quickly.  There's only so much brain-warping technicality you can come across before it stops being impressive and starts being the norm.  The problem is that the highest bars were all set fairly early and most bands were always chasing a few gargantuan shadows.  Early on there were basically only three bands to choose from, and they all one-upped each other super quickly and that was that.  Deeds of Flesh is one of the earliest examples to take the Suffocation/Dying Fetus style of brutal death metal with loads of technicality and amp it up to an almost inhuman level of musicianship, Necrophagist pretty definitively laid the foundation for what tech death would become shortly afterwards with Onset of Putrefaction in 1999 (it's easy to forget just how ahead of their time they were) with the insane speed finding itself coupled with highly melodic passages and nutso soloing, and then the following year Origin released their self titled debut and more or less set the standard with their style of what I affectionately call "salad shooter" tech death.  For a time, if you liked this style those were really the only three bands worth a damn to choose from, until sometime around 2007ish it just fucking exploded and all of the sudden seemingly everybody was signed to Unique Leader or Willowtip and had Par Olofsson doing their album covers.  And despite that, Origin were still the kings of the genre, with their 2008 masterpiece, Antithesis, setting the absolute gold standard of what human limits could achieve within the genre while still crafting memorable and worthwhile songs.  Nothing else was that fast, that impressive, and that catchy.  For nearly a decade, the entire scene was trying and failing to surpass Antithesis, which is probably a big reason why it fell out of favor so quickly.  The apex had already been achieved, and nobody was able to match it.

That lengthy preamble really only serves to provide context for why Archspire has brought the genre back into the spotlight for a time.  Despite the fact that a few phenomenal bands managed to flourish in the wake of Antithesis (Hour of Penance, pre-Agony Fleshgod Apocalypse, Spawn of Possession, Decrepit Birth, Hideous Divinity, etc), Archspire was the first band to really hint at having the potential to, on a technical and objective level, finally usurp that thundering monolith of modern metal.  The pieces were all there on The Lucid Collective, but the songs themselves hadn't quite reached the level of incessant infectiousness yet to truly push them over the edge.  But the writing was on the wall, these guys had the chops to make it happen.  And with Relentless Mutation they finally, finally did it.

What makes this album stand out, to me at least, is that it's probably the most unabashedly unrestrained album in the genre.  It pushes the limits of human dexterity and lung capacity to levels several parsecs past the last established extreme. Prewett's feet move so fucking fast that it sounds like the bass drum is a god damned ziptie, and Oli Peters can growl and rasp at speeds comparable to a tape on fast forward.  It's probably cliche to point out how fast Archspire is, but it is their most notable quality regardless.  I think the reason Oli and Spencer have become such superstars in the scene is because they're probably the first at their respective instruments to truly ascend to a higher plane of skill.  Speedy and precise drummers have been commonplace in tech death forever now, but Prewett's sheer relentlessness is something you don't really get all that often.  Despite the mechanically precise drumming on display, he still feels human.  The first time I heard John Longstreth or Lord Marco drum, I felt like I was hearing somebody who was let loose on a drum machine and just went overboard.  The first time I heard Prewett, even though it was on an album much less memorable than this one, I felt like how I felt the first time I heard Pete Sandoval or Flo Mournier.  All you need to do is listen to pretty much any song here, or watch a drum playthrough or something, and you'll understand just how special he is.  Playing this insane doesn't usually come with such feeling, but somehow he manages it.  There's a lot of passion and feeling in his spastic drum performance, it's a very emotionally charged blast of aggression, as laser-guided and pinpoint as it is.  Oli needs less explaining, because all I can think to say is "Think about how impressed scene veterans are with Corpsegrinder's rate of delivery.  Now imagine him on a coke bender."  He sounds like a rabid wolverine, with each syllable punctuated for emphasis, so he rattles off these ridiculously verbose lyrics with a fine tuned breathless staccato roar.  It's like getting punched a thousand times in a few seconds.

The other guys are obviously great as well, but the drums and vocals are indisputably what gave Archspire their push towards fame.  However, all of these standout technical performances would mean something between "jack" and "shit" if the songs themselves weren't great as well.  That is where The Lucid Collective failed, but it is where Relentless Mutation excels.  This album has hooks out the fucking wazoo, and since it keeps itself contained to a mere thirty minutes, it doesn't overstay its welcome, deftly maneuvering through a few million notes with such glitter-tossing flair that you're sure to remember the multitude vocal lines and bass breaks.  "Involuntary Doppelganger" has become an instant hit for good reason, as it manages to perfectly blend the frenzied speed with well crafted hooks in a way that nobody has been able to replicate since Origin a decade prior.  "Remote Tumour Seeker" and the title track are highlights in this regard as well, with the latter throwing in some spacey prog sections as well.  Usually that shit would annoy me, but it's a welcome break from the overwhelming deluge of riffery that the rest of the album giddily rejoices in.  Even the occasional proggy sections like this still see the bass noodling around with bloopy arpeggios and the drums never stop pummeling away with inhumanly fast skinwork.  There's even a nice vocal intro for "Calamus Will Animate", coupled with a handful of absolutely devastating breakdowns across a few tracks.  If nothing else, these guys understand the value of throwing a few curveballs now and then, because tech death can tend to be too much of the same at times.  There are samey moments here and there of course, it's unavoidable with the style, but there are enough neat little oddities here and there that it winds up being an ultimately small issue.

The album artwork is a pretty good visualization of what Relentless Mutation sounds like.  It's completely overwhelming, seeing the listener frantically clawing at their own face while they drown, begging for some sort of release from this fast-expanding virus that eats your flesh and sprouts cancerous growths and parasitic leeches.  Thankfully, the band revels in this utter batshittery and winds up being very enjoyable in their mania.  The album has been out for a little over a year now, and I still find myself coming back to it for the occasional maiming.  One of my biggest regrets is snubbing this for my year end list last year in favor of Hideous Divinity.  They're still great, don't get me wrong, but Archspire is on a whole other level, and something this exceptional deserves all the love it can get.


Sunday, September 16, 2018

Deicide - Overtures of Blasphemy

Holy Hell

I'm a vocal proponent of the idea that old metal bands should roll over and die already.  Classic bands were classic because of their early work 100% of the time.  How many truly essential albums have really been released late in a band's career?  Dehumanizer?  Debatable (I personally think it's only half good myself), but Sabbath finally put their career to rest a while back so they're out of the picture for the current meta.  Painkiller?  Yeah it was a late career fluke in its time but Judas Priest has been active for 28 years since then and produced nothing but mediocrity since, it's weird to think about it this way but it sits squarely in the first half of their career at this point.  Anything Iron Maiden has released since the 80s ended?  lol get the fuck outta here you no-standards-having scrub.  There are exceptions to every rule of course; Cannibal Corpse has been consistently great throughout their career and, while I don't care for them, Amorphis fans seem to uniformly hold their old and new stuff in equal regard, but on the whole this is a pretty solid standard for me.

So with my eternal frustration with dinosaurs consistently hogging all of the limelight with samey mediocre garbage in mind, I approached Overtures of Blasphemy with a lot of trepidation.  Deicide may have arguably set the standard for American death metal early on, with both the self titled debut and Legion boasting roughly infinity riffs between them and Serpents of the Light being a flawed but entertaining and catchy late 90s death metal release, but their best years are clearly behind them.  Leaving out the amazing fluke that was The Stench of Redemption (many thanks to Ralph Santolla for injecting some fresh life into those fast-decaying veins), six out of their last seven albums over the last twenty years have ranged from forgettable to awful.  Their slide into total irrelevance is tragic considering how brilliant they once were and how much of an unsung death metal MVP Steve Asheim still is.  They shouldn't've even bothered releasing anything else at this point.  Just play fests and go bowling or something.

However, I'm wrong a lot, and Overtures of Blasphemy is proof of that, because holy fuck does this album smoke.

Right from the opening notes of "One with Satan", you can feel this sort of immense pressure building up behind the sustained chords of that monstrously huge opening riff, and when it all finally releases into a thrashy retrodeath throwback about forty seconds in, the walls just start crumbling down and all fucking hell breaks loose.  It just keeps picking up steam as it goes, eventually breaking into a hellish whirlwind of insane blasting and harmonized soloing.  I'm not even kidding when I say all twelve tracks on display somehow manage to keep this manic intensity at a suitably batshit plateau.  The album is sort of front loaded ("Crawled from the Shadows" and "Seal the Tomb Below" are possibly the best tracks on display) but I feel like that's sort of just by nature of them being the first few songs and therefore the ones you're most likely to hear.  Everything is pretty much equally as good, you could've restructured these tracks in any order and you'd be smacked in the gob with a bloody explosion of fury.

One of the more noticeable things about the album is Glen Benton's vocals, because this is the first time I can remember (though it may have been this way on the last album as well, but I don't quite remember because it was five years ago and quite boring) where he's totally abandoned his trademark of layering his deep bellows with his high gravelly rasps.  His high register isn't utilized at all here, it's just bassy gutturals the entire time, and you'd think that removing one of the most quintessentially Deicide elements would produce a very un-Deicide Deicide album, but dammit here we are with arguably their best album in 25+ years.  Maybe it's the injection of fresh blood again after the departure of Jack Owen (though English and Quiron are by no means virile youngsters), but Overtures of Blasphemy has an unarguable sense of renewed vigor.  While this album does fly in the face of most of my beliefs for how and why old bands are so consistently lame in their later years, I do feel somewhat vindicated because even though the band is over 30 years old at this point and Glen is well into his fifties, this sounds young and hungry.  This sounds like it could've been released in 1992, it's a nearly mythical blend of adolescent energy mixed with the tightness that comes with decades of being a touring metal band.  These fuckers haven't slowed down one bit.  Glen sounds as vicious as he's ever sounded, Steve is playing with a level of speed and passion that the new breed of laser guided tech death kids can only dream of reaching, the riffs are up to par and even surpass what the Hoffman brothers produced in their prime, everything about this feels like a band that has everything to prove and everything to lose.  They went for broke here and cashed out big time.

The true strength of this album lies in its hooks, because this is one of the catchiest death metal albums released in some years, it's like some sort of lost Vader album.  Despite the rabid ferocity of the music, there are no shortage of damn near anthemic riffs and choruses.  "Crawled from the Shadows" and "Crucified Soul of Salvation" stand out in this regard, but none of the other tracks really fall flat.  Not a single second is wasted, everything is massive in some way.  The whole album sounds like one relentless monsoon of riffage that drowns everything with an infectious flair.  I'm stunned, they haven't showcased this level of deft songwriting in eons. There's a sort of primal simplicity in what they're doing here, and that sort of feral tunnel vision is a huge boon to the album's memorability.  The solos may be flashy and excessive but it sounds like a stylish bludgeoning more than the dudes showing off how good they are at arpeggios or something, and the rhythm section has such a dedicated single-minded focus on tearing your throat out and making you swallow it without chewing that I'm finding it almost impossible to get these songs out of my head.  Sometimes you just need to pick something simple and be the best at it, and Deicide is proving that even after all these years, they've still got some fuel in their tank.  Why the hell they waited so damn long to showcase it is something I'll never understand, but I'd be lying to you if I said this wasn't some top-tier shit in 2018.

Overtures of Blasphemy has no business being as good as it is, and it's forcing me to eat my hat in the bloodiest way possible.  For the first time in decades, Deicide sounds dangerous, and man is that refreshing to say.  It's a concise blast of explosive riffage from guys who were there when it all started, and somehow, against all odds, they've re-lit the fire and burned down most of their peers.