(Andy Synn wrote the three album reviews collected in this post.)
As you may know, List Season is now officially over (for me anyway, though not for the site)… which means Post-List Season is officially open!
Now I’m sure it hasn’t escaped your attention that over the past few years (and beyond) we’ve been experiencing another one of those periodic Old School Death Metal “revivals”, where it seems like everyone has been competing to find the most effusive and hyperbolic way to praise the latest batch of Floridian-meets-Finnish Death Metal disciples (especially, or so it seems, if they’re American).
One reason for this, I’d imagine, is that we’ve now reached a point where a certain generation of bands, fans, and writers who weren’t old enough to take part in the original rise of the genre, or the early waves of Old School nostalgia, have risen to positions of prominence/notoriety, and by praising, supporting (and sometimes over-hyping) the current crop of retro riff-mongers they’re now able to relive – if only vicariously – the “classic” days of the genre which they missed out on.
Don’t get me wrong, there have been some absolute gems to have come out of all this (several of which we’ve written about here before now), and so I’ve decided to dedicate today’s edition of “The Unsung Heroes of 2020” to three more of them, one of which was a firm favourite on my “Good” list, another of which took a prominent position on my “Great” list… and the third of which might, if I’d discovered it sooner, have forced a major rewrite of my “Critical Top Ten” this year!
ILSA – PREYER
While I’ve seen Ilsa referred to as “Sludge” in a few different places (something which I can understand, as there’s definitely a filthy, sludgy side to the band, there’s no denying that), the true core of the group’s sound – especially on their stunningly ugly, staggeringly heavy new album, Preyer – is built on a monolithically dense foundation of gnarly Death Metal and equally nasty Doom that wears its gritty, Crust-Punk influences out loud and proud.
For those of you unfamiliar with the band, think Autopsy-meets-Acid Bath-meets-Amebix and you’ll probably be in the right sort of brutal ballpark, although truthfully Ilsa’s sound – carefully crafted and cultivated over the course of multiple albums and splits – is very much their own.
For those of you already aware of how gruesome and groovesome and disgustingly gut-churning this band can be, well, I suppose all you really need to know is that this might just be their best work yet.
As always, the guitars deliver a brutally simple blend of mass-driven power and hefty hooks, no matter whether they’re grinding you down with a glacially-paced section of pure doomery or galloping all over your face with bar after bar of rabid intensity, while the drums keep time with ominous, oppressive accuracy (but aren’t afraid to cut loose when the song calls for it), and the buzzing, brooding bass-lines prowl around the murky edges like some insatiable, intangible beast.
On top of all this, the vocals cut through all the metallic grit and grime with the sort of spiteful intensity that makes you wonder if “singer” (and I use that term very lightly) Orion actually spends all his time between recording sessions gargling battery-acid and broken glass just to achieve this specific flavour of bile and belligerence.
But for all the album’s primal simplicity – practically every track seems like it’s constantly trying to one-up the previous one in terms of how dark, how heavy, and how angry it can get – what really sets Preyer apart, and earned it a well-deserved spot on my “Great Albums of 2020” list is the ever-shifting dynamic and surprising variety of the music, which lurches with reckless abandon from the slow-motion stomp of “Poor Devil” to the punky, pissed-off dervish of “Shibboleth” to the nerve-jangling, bass-driven Death/Crust crossover of “Widdershins”.
Not only that, but the entire album, from the chugging, churn ‘n’ burn Death-Doom of the title-track to the sinister, stripped-down death-march of “Lady Diamond” to to the lurid melodic twists and lumbering, lead-lined riffs of crushing closer “The Square Coliseum”, is also underpinned by a killer concept, using the case of convicted (and executed) murderer Sean Sellers as a way to confront, and indict, the failings of both the US mental health system and its insidiously theocratic institutions.
So, with all that, is it any wonder I selected this as one of the “Great” albums of the year?
IRON FLESH – SUMMONING THE PUTRID
In the intro to this article I referenced the fact that a lot of sites/zines (including this one) have been happily heaping attention and accolades on a particular strain of Finland-via-Florida throwback Death Metal over the last few years.
And while it’s primarily been American bands who’ve received the lion’s share of these comments and column inches (and we could spend a long time unpacking exactly why), French quartet Iron Flesh have also been quietly, but quickly, making a name for themselves for their significantly more Swedish style of Old-School savagery.
Having already written about the band here, here, and here, I’m more than familiar with their sound – think Grave/Dismember meets Autopsy/Hypocrisy, with a little bit of early Paradise Lost and Edge of Sanity added for good measure – and the way in which they shamelessly pay tribute to their forebears without being a straight-up carbon-copy of them.
Of course, that still means that “originality” isn’t really a major priority, but, then again, when you’re purposefully playing Old-School Death Metal I’d argue that it’s far more important to communicate a real sense of conviction and love for the genre while also, in some small way, doing something to make you stand out from the horde of other bands also trying to resurrect the Retro-Death cadaver.
Now the band’s obvious love for, and dedication to, Death Metal has been clear ever since their first EP, so that’s one box firmly ticked already. But when it comes to separating themselves from the pack… well, that’s been a slower and more subtle process, one which continues here with the band largely ignoring the well-trodden path of outright Entombed/Demilich/Morbid Angel worship in favour of a much more Hypocrisy-influenced sound… as the razor-edged riffs, galloping rhythms, and malevolent melodies of opener “Servants of Oblivion” immediately make clear.
It’s a subtle differentiation, I’ll grant you, but an important one all the same, and one which both the twisty, Tägtgren-esque riffs of “Relinquished Flesh” and the menacing stomp of “Demonic Enn” only reinforce with every skittering blast-beat and chunky, chugging rhythm.
That’s not to say that Iron Flesh have totally abandoned all their other influences of course (“Purify Through Blasphemy” is vintage Paradise Lost, for example) but it’s just that, by leaning even more strongly into this one particular set of inspirations – and you can’t tell me that the beefy riffs and melodic leads of “Cursed Beyond Death”, or the visceral vocal layering during closer “Convicted Faith”, wouldn’t fit in perfectly on Abducted or Into the Abyss – they’ve somehow, paradoxically, helped themselves stand out, and stand apart, in the process.
Originality, huh? Who needs it!
PLAGUE – PORTRAITS OF MIND
As I think we’ve (hopefully) established by now, there’s a certain art to doing Old School Death Metal the right way. It’s not enough just to rip-off the greats – you have to be willing/able to actually do something with the sound you’re stealing from.
Now, it seems pretty obvious to me that those who’ve dismissed Portraits of Mind as just another OSDM album have barely even scratched the surface of this record, as it was clear to me, even on my first listen, that there was a lot more going on underneath the surface than another attempted return to the genre’s “golden era”.
No, what this Greek quartet are doing here actually goes beyond that. They’re not attempting to just recreate one particular period in the evolution of Death Metal, they’re actually digging even deeper down to its primordial DNA, to that place where the boundaries between Death Metal and Thrash, Black Metal and Tech, start to become permeable and indistinct, as one style begins to bleed over into the next.
So while there’s undoubtedly a strong Schuldiner and Azagthoth (not to mention Wiwczarek) influence at play in the guitars, there’s also a distinctly blackened vibe to much of the music – such as the prominent, predatory tremolo riffs and gruesome vocals which make up much of opener “Intersperse” – as well as an even more tech-y flourish to many of the songs (particularly in the latter stages of the album) which recalls the mutated metallic style of bands like Mithras and Zealotry.
Hell, even at its most straightforward – consider, if you will, the proto-Death/Thrash and choppy Slayer-isms of “Pandemic” as a prime example – there’s still a wealth of moody melodic hooks and scrappy dynamic shifts at work which ensure that the band’s sound always remains just one step ahead of your expectations, while their more ambitious compositions, such as the constantly evolving “Deranged Madness”, which is equal parts thrashy, hooky, deathly, doomy, and eerily melodic, serve as a constant reminder that even a purposefully “Old School” sound can still be twisted into surprising new shapes.
It may only be their debut, but this Greek quartet clearly have both the art and the science of Death Metal down.
On a purely physical, technical level, they’ve obviously got all the necessary skills – and more than a few clever tricks up their sleeves – to go toe-to-toe with even the most talented of their most (in)famous peers. But it’s on a more philosophical, meta-physical level where they really shine, with an understanding that “Old School” is merely a descriptor, not an end point – the true goal is to record an album that could be considered “timeless”, one which could have come out at any point over the last twenty or thirty years and yet still sound as fresh and vibrant as it does today.
And Portraits of Mind could very well be that sort of album. Only time will tell.