(As the year limps to the finish line Andy Synn continues to recommend 2020 albums we haven’t yet covered in detail, bringing us three more reviews today.)
For today’s edition of “Unsung Heroes” we’re looking out towards the edges of the nascent (and slightly controversial) “Post-Death” scene, with three bands who – each in their own way – have taken a sound rooted in the firm foundations of Death Metal and nurtured it, cultivated it, in a much more expansive and progressive direction, cross-breeding it with outside elements and influences in an attempt to produce a new, hybrid-strain of heaviness which is more than just the sum of its varied parts.
Have they been successful? Well that, to an extent, is in the eye of the beholder, but I’d say that each of the three bands featured here shows a lot of promise and potential (in some cases a frankly incredibly amount), to the point where some of them (perhaps even all of them) may one day become future leaders and trailblazers in this slowly evolving sub-scene.
GROWTH – THE SMOTHERING ARMS OF MERCY
The Smothering Arms of Mercy was, without a doubt, one of the most striking debut albums of the year, and one which immediately marked this Aussie trio out as “ones to watch”.
In fact, the only reason it didn’t quite make it onto my “Great” list (which, to be honest, I’m still in two minds about) was that it’s occasionally overwhelmed by the sheer scope of its own ambition!
Clocking in at just under sixty-three minutes in length, The Smothering Arms… is definitely designed to make a massive initial impact, and although its length does become something of an albatross around the album’s neck at points, there’s no denying that this is one album which both hits hard and leaves a lasting impression.
Sonically-speaking Growth’s sound is a distant cousin of the ever-expanding zeitgeist of Post/Prog Death Metal bands such as Black Crown Initiate and Rivers of Nihil, possessing much the same sort of punchy intensity and proggy proclivities of the former as well as shades of the more atmospheric, most-metallic vibes of the latter.
They are, however, noticeably more angular and abrasive overall, leaning even more towards the lurching, arrhythmic grooves of The Way of All Flesh-era Gojira and the neck-popping, tendon-twanging avant-technicality of Gorguts, with perhaps a dash of Car Bomb’s frenetic fury included in the mix for good measure, and it’s this combination of dense, discordant rhythms, contorted, claustrophobic riffs, and ambient, anxiety-inducing tension, which makes this album a particularly difficult and demanding listen at times, and certainly not one for the faint of heart.
But whether it’s the bone-jarring twists and neck-snapping turns of opener “Cigarette Burns”, or the masterful study in extremity, excess and riveting restraint that is unorthodox-yet-unstoppable finale “Gird Your Loved In Armour While You Yet Wither” it’s also an incredibly rewarding album to listen to as well, whose superficially chaotic construction conceals multiple layers of meaning, form, and function.
Other highlights, in between these two poles, include the pneumatic riffs and spasmodic percussive patterns of “The Treatment for Melancholy” and the prowling, Prog-Death powerhouse of “Fortress of Flesh and Bone” (both from the first half of the album) as well as the surprisingly heart-wrenching “Lead Us to Our Glorious Times” and the disgustingly heavy “Soul Rot”, although pretty much every track has something to recommend it (with perhaps the excessively slanted and convoluted strains of “Darkly, It Tightens Its Grip” being the one exception)… and that’s without me even mentioning the incredibly varied and impressively visceral vocals of Luke Frizon.
So while The Smothering Arms of Mercy may not be perfect, it’s still absolutely overflowing with promise and potential – some of which the band have clearly already brought to fruition, while the rest will doubtless blossom into something even bigger/better somewhere down the road.
So my advice is to keep a close eye on these guys going forwards. You won’t want to miss what they do next.
OBSIDIAN MANTRA – MINDS LED ASTRAY
Let’s address the big, eight-stringed elephant in the room right away, shall we?
Obviously Obsidian Mantra love Meshuggah. And why wouldn’t they? After all, the Big M are a veritable institution at this point, and wield an impressive amount of influence over the Metal scene (even if no-one, as of yet, has even come close to knocking them off their throne).
However, unlike some bands (you know the ones) who seem to feel that it’s their duty to sanitise and soften the group’s signature sound by stripping away its harsher edges and replacing them with twinkly ambience and over-emotive, clean-sung choruses, this Polish trio are clearly much more interested in their own vision/version of Meshuggah as a Death Metal band (which, let’s face it, they are), and have responded accordingly with an album of massive-riffs, bone-rattling grooves, and bowel-quaking growls that puts the focus even more firmly on punishing, pinpoint precise heaviness.
They’re not the first band to take this approach of course – both the dearly-departed In-Quest and current NCS favourites Koronal both managed to take their primary inspiration from the works of Haake, Hagström, et al, without feeling the need to dilute their inherent intensity – but it’s always nice to see a band stick to their guns and pursue the heavier path, rather than the more popular one.
As a straight-up, groove-focussed Death Metal album there’s very little to fault Minds Led Astray about. The songs are, practically without exception, a bombastic blend of piston-powered heaviness and primal hookiness, largely eschewing the cerebral complexities of syncopated structures and twisted time signatures in favour of a more tightly-wound, densely-bound, kick-to-the-gut sort of sound that rarely (barring the two short interlude pieces) pulls its punches.
Of course, it’s definitely at its best when it steps a little outside of the Meshuggah-shaped box which the band have built for themselves, from the injection of high-velocity blastbeats which propels early highlight “The Demon-Haunted World” to the wickedly infectious, pseudo-Tech Death riffs of “The First Disbeliever” and the propulsive, Decapitated-esque momentum of “Circle of Mourners”.
That being said, it’s during final track “Eternal Atonement” where you really start to see more hints of the band’s as-yet-unrealised potential, with the appearance of a more Ulcerate-ish sense of Post-Death discordance and distortion-driven atmosphere.
As it happens this isn’t the only time this more dissonant dynamic makes an appearance (there are also early hints of this during “The Orphan’s Bloodline”) but it definitely takes on a much more prominent role in the band’s sound during the finale, and hints at new areas and arenas they might be well advised to explore and exploit in the future.
For now, though, Minds Led Astray should more than scratch that particular itch for dominant, deathly grooves I know a lot of you have, and is well worth checking out, purely on its own merits.
YASHIRA – FAIL TO BE
There no need to rehash the tragedy of Yashira drummer/co-founder Seth Howard’s untimely passing in late 2018 in any detail here. Suffice it to say that if the band had chosen to call it a day following the loss of their close friend and collaborator, very few people would have blamed them.
Thankfully it appears that quitting was never really an option for the Floridian foursome (now featuring new drummer Ryan O’Neal), and I’m pleased to report that Fail to Be is a huge step up from the band’s debut, one which takes the band’s visceral, vigorous hybrid of Death Metal, Post-Metal, and Sludge and pushes it in ambitious, abrasive new directions while also, somehow, seeming even more cohesive than ever.
Musically speaking, Fail to Be is a purposefully angular and antagonistic album whose punishing intensity is derived not from the smooth alignment of elements and influences but from the way they clash and collide and ricochet off one another in explosive, unpredictable ways.
It’s also painfully open and honest album, practically overflowing with raw emotion and cathartic aggression, and even its quietest, calmest moments (which provide a welcome sense of dynamic contrast as well as a much-needed opportunity for the listener to catch their breath and gather their thoughts) practically bristle with barely restrained anguish and anxiety.
All of these elements are immediately apparent during dissonant, hypnotic opener “The Constant”, which writhes and heaves, roils and churns, like some sort of deep-sea leviathan that’s been dragged to the surface, only to begin to suffocate under its own prodigious weight.
In fact this sense of weight and mass and imposing physicality underlies much of this album, from the jarring, jagged impact of “Shards of Heaven” and the chugging, constricting strains of the aptly-named “The Weight”, to the stomping, back-breaking strain of “Shades Erased” and the contorted technicality of “Inertia Mines”.
Of course, it’s one thing to apply pressure, it’s another entirely to apply it in the right place(s)… but Yashira are smart enough to know just where to focus their efforts, and just when to pull back – particularly in the second half of the album, where the slow-burn build-up of “Amnesia”, the antithetical emptiness of “Narrowed In Mirrored Light”, and the sinister background ambience underpinning “Inertia Mines”, all serve to provide a necessary sense of balance and contrast – to prevent the listener from becoming numb.
It all culminates in the tense, trance-inducing atmospherics and gargantuan, bone-grinding riffs of crushing closer “Kudzu”, which not only ties up the album in a neat (and nasty) little package, but also suggests that Yashira have not yet finished evolving, and that their best may still be to come!