(In this post NCS writer BadWolf reviews the new album by Chicago’s Lord Mantis – Death Mask).
There is something deeply wrong with the minds and hearts of Charlie Fell, Andrew Markuszewski, Bill Bumgardner, and Ken Sorceron, who together form Lord Mantis. I’m not sure how we didn’t know before—each of these musicians has made waves in the underground for quite some time as members of Nachtmystium, Avichi, Indian, and Abigail Williams, among other bands. But there’s just something deeply upsetting about the music they make together as Lord Mantis on their new album, Death Mask.
At this point, people probably know the Chicago-based black-sludge outfit best for their filthy taste in cover art. 2012’s critically-acclaimed album Pervertor featured a limbless, vaginal Jesus being gang-penetrated by some Lovecraftian tongue beasties. Death Mask might be even worse, sporting a sickly-green big-bushed hermaphrodite sewing a death mask (get it?) onto his/her own face. The image has already stirred some controversy (see this and this). For my money, I feel the artwork has about as much artistic depth of content as Lady Gaga getting covered in vomit. As a PR move, however, it’s adept, since Death Mask is such an inaccessible album that it requires some sort of outside hook to get listeners interested.
I have no idea what they’re putting in the waters of Lake Michigan, but it seems like this year has marked release after release of well and truly unsettling music, including Catharsis Absolute by Avichi (a solo project by Markuszewski), and From All Purity by Indian. Death Mask might be the best record of the bunch—it’s the one I’ve revisited most, at least, and it probably has the most hooks. But make no mistake, this is a difficult album to listen to. Almost the whole of the record comes coated in distortion and noise—industrial effects pepper the background, while several digital filters mask the blackened shriek vocals that populate Death Mask.
One gets the sense, after a few listens, that Lord Mantis are less about perversion, or provoking reactions, than they are about self-loathing. The music sounds virulent and nasty, building up a sense of real anger that never gets a release. Their songs run a little long, and twist themselves into new configurations before circling back to earlier themes. There are no real cathartic moments.
Which isn’t to say there’s no fun to be had here. Unlike Indian’s From All Purity, this album has some real fist-in-the air moments, and a lot of slamming down-beat riffs to get the blood pumping. Lead track and single “Body Choke,” for example, sounds like punching a wall out of sheer frustration over and over until you can see your own knuckle bone, and in that sense Death Mask hits the very narrow middle ground between brooding and aggression. It lashes out, but in futility.
The members of Lord Mantis have expanded their palate of influences beyond the preemptive blackened sludge of their last album. The song “Coil” feels like a Midwest metallic hardcore song played at half-speed, sometimes reminiscent of Integrity, what with its slamming open guitar riffs and eerie vocal samples. Death Mask is definitely a more varied, and therefore interesting listen than its predecessor.
For proof, listen to the album’s closer, “Three Crosses,” which is now my personal favorite Lord Mantis song. The track builds to a fever pitch quite early, and then relaxes during its bridge, ratcheting the tension up and then calming down a few times in its duration. Bill Bumgardner’s drumming is workmanlike on most of Death Mask, but he tosses in a few interesting tribal tom-lines in “Three Crosses.” And Markuszewski’s solos prove once again that he’s one of the most distinctive soloists in metal right now—his work on this song more than equals his stellar work in Nachtmystium. The album is worth a listen for this track alone.
I worry that controversy—and artwork in poor taste—will turn prospective readers off from listening to this remarkable record. Where I stand, I’m willing to tolerate a great deal in the place of artistic impression—Death Mask doesn’t overtly endorse any kind of violence or hate speech. What it does do is make me uncomfortable, and that’s precisely what I like about it.
EDITOR’S NOTE: Death Mask was recorded with Sanford Parker. The cover art is by Jef Whitehead (Leviathan, Twilight). Indian’s guitarist/vocalist Dylan O’Toole contributed additional vocals on two of the tracks. The album will be released by Profound Lore on April 29. Listen to “Body Choke” below.