(Andy Synn goes fishing in the Tech Death scene and comes back with a hell of a catch)
If there’s one common theme which unites these three albums – you know, apart from the fact that they’re all brand new additions to the ever-expanding Tech Death canon – it’s that each of them finds the band in question working hard, struggling some might say (though certainly not in vain), to carve out a space, a niche, an identity, for themselves in an already saturated scene.
Let’s face it, there’s no shortage of super-speed shredmasters out there all vying to be the fastest, the most complex, the most ridiculous, and this year alone has already delivered a bumper crop of both killer and filler releases running the gamut from the heaviest to the most histrionic (and everything in between).
One thing that I think we can all agree on though – and which, to a greater or lesser extent, all of today’s selections clearly demonstrate – is that technical talent is nothing without the songwriting skill to match it, because once the initial dopamine rush of being bombarded with a thousand notes a second wears off it’s the structural hooks, the infectious melodies, the subtle repetitions, that trigger the brain’s innate pattern recognition algorithms and ensure that what you’ve just heard gets filed away in your long-term memory, rather than just flying in one ear and out the other.
So let’s see if this particular trio have what it takes to make a lasting impression, shall we?
ALUSTRIUM – A MONUMENT TO SILENCE
If you have even the slightest interest in the more technical side of the Death Metal sphere/spectrum/scale then chances are you’ll be aware that there is a lot riding on Alustrium’s don’t-call-it-a-comeback record, A Monument to Silence.
After all, their previous album, 2015’s phenomenal A Tunnel to Eden, is still held up by many – this guy included – as one of the finest works of techy, proggy brilliance of the last decade, so album #3 (following on from last year’s excellent Insurmountable EP) has a lot to live up to.
Things get off to a promising start with “This Hollow Ache”, which manages to be both a successful scene-setter (it’s moody opening passages providing a foreshadowing of more to come later) and a solid slab of strafing shred and stomping rhythms, complete with an instantly catchy “chorus” section that practically guarantees you won’t be forgetting it any time soon, after which “Join the Dead” kicks things up yet another notch with an array of even punchier guitar parts and sharper hooks (with both tracks also showcasing the band’s increased focus on fluid songwriting and atmosphere-enhancing instrumental-layering).
It’s tracks four and five, following on from the slightly more straightforward (relatively speaking) auditory assault of “Hunted”, where things really hit their stride however, as the dynamic duo of “The Accuser” and “The Plea” find the band flipping the paradigm from “Tech” to “Prog”, with the former’s elegant blend of mood-drenched melodies and pounding riffs occasionally drawing comparison with the best (and heaviest) bits of Between the Buried and Me, while the latter’s injection of Cynic-esque melodic ambience at key points proves to be anything but a cynical choice.
And while, good though they are, the pairing of “Dreamless Sleep” and “Blood for Blood” actually makes me wonder if Alustrium might have been even better off spinning off a handful of track into their own EP (as it is A Monument for Silence clocks in at over sixty-two minutes), there’s no doubt in my mind that the climactic run of “Deliverance for the Damned” (six-and-a-half minutes of raging riffosity that builds to a suitably epic finale), “Worthless Offers” (one of the most atmospheric and intense numbers the band have ever written), and the titanic title-track (ten-minutes-and-forty-seconds of prodigiously powerful riffs, poignantly proggy melodies, and pitch-perfect performances across the board) is one of the strongest three-song sequences I’ve heard this year.
So while I’m not sure if A Monument to Silence has actively surpassed A Tunnel to Eden – I’ll leave that as a question for the ages – it’s a fantastic follow-up, no question, as well as one of the best albums, Tech Death or otherwise, of the year so far.
COGNITIVE – MALEVOLENT THOUGHTS OF A HASTENED EXTINCTION
Cards on the table… while I am still a big fan of New Jersey Tech-core crew Cognitive (I did, after all, dedicate an entire edition of The Synn Report to them in the lead up to their third album, Matricide) I must admit that, of the three records featured here, this is the one I’m most conflicted about.
On the one hand it’s easily the band’s heftiest, heaviest, and hardest-hitting album yet (it takes all of thirty seconds of opener “Eniac” to make that very, very clear), which finds them achieving a whole new level of lethality.
On the other, however, while the band have undeniably added an extra dose of intensity to their formula (aided and abetted by a brand new, brutally talented rhythm section) they’ve also – arguably – lost a little bit of their uniqueness in the process, with certain sections simultaneously inducing spasms of involuntary headbanging alongside niggling suggestions of “haven’t I heard this somewhere before?”
That’s not necessarily a bad thing of course. After all, if they’re stealing (and I’m not saying they are) then they’re stealing from the best, with the twitchy staccato riffs and brutish, belt-fed rhythms underpinning certain tracks (such as “Arterial Red” and “From the Depths”) obviously owing a lot to bands like Soreption and Beneath the Massacre, while others – namely “Oroborous” and “Tearing Tendon From Bone” – find the band taking a quick sojourn to Cattle Decapitation country to poach some of that group’s meatiest riffs and grisliest grooves.
However, even if these songs do share a fair bit of DNA in common with some other bands you might be familiar with – and we could argue about whether that’s a product of intelligent design or just convergent evolution until the headless cows come home – they’re still, and I can’t stress this enough, pretty damn devastating in their own right, and Cognitive have clearly thrown everything they have into this album (vocalist Shane Jost in particular has stepped up his game dramatically from his debut with the band on Matricide).
Even better is the fact that the very best songs on the album make it extremely easy to ignore these similarities – “The Maw”, for example, while being pretty heavily Cryptopsy-inspired (especially during its devastatingly chaotic second half) is a clear early stand-out – and the second half of the album in particular is full of absolute bunker-busters, from the horrendously heavy Brutal/Tech/Deathcore hybrid of “To Feed the Worms” and the violent velocity of “Malevolent Thoughts” to the unexpectedly brooding bombast of “Destitute” (complete with subtle splashes of Fit For An Autopsy style clean vocals) and the disgusting, Dying Fetus-esque blend of cruel technicality and cro-magnon brutality that is “Of A Hasted Extinction”.
So, yeah… mixed feelings still. I like it. I like it a lot, in fact. But I’ve also got a few reservations. But, then, that’s not the worst place to be, it just means the band still have room to grow and evolve on their next album (which I’m already looking forward to).
OPHIDIAN I – DESOLATE
Just like the Cognitive record covered above, it’s pretty easy to identify some of the most obvious inspirations and/or parallels with regards to Desolate, the second album from Ophidian I.
But while references to Obscura, Gorod, and Spawn of Possession certainly wouldn’t be misplaced, it seems to me like the Icelandic quintet have hit upon a very simple solution to the problem of people comparing them to other bands… just play so fast that no-one has time to do so!
Don’t get me wrong, sheer, superluminal speed isn’t the only thing this album has going for it – it wouldn’t be anywhere near as impactful or memorable, for example, without the band’s obvious gift for writing shamelessly shred-tastic melodies – but your first impression of Desolate is still most likely to be “fuck me, that’s fast!”
Of course, once you get past that initial shock that’s when you’ll really start to appreciate everything this album has to offer as well as how impressive it is that Ophidian I have successfully managed to write an entire album’s worth of tracks that (almost) never pause for breath (or offer the listener a breather either) but which still, somehow, stand out from one another and from the rest of the pack too.
From the heart-racing melodic exuberance of opener “Diamonds” (reminiscent, at times, of a blast-driven version of Scale the Summit) or the riff-tastic, shred-happy strains of “Spiral to Oblivion” and “Enslaved in a Desolate Swarm” (both of which remind me of Allegaeon’s Proggy/Techy Melodeath magic, only sped-up by a good 20%), to the hyper-velocity fretwork of “Unfurling the Crescent Moon” (which could honestly give Tech-Death darlings Archspire a run for their money) and the terrifying technical twists and relentless rhythmic shifts of “Jupiter”, this album is made of up songs which continually dance with danger, yet always – sometimes through sheer moxy alone – remain just one step ahead of the competition.
In fact, the only time that the band’s momentum actually falters is right at the very end – there’s just something about some of the riffs and the arrangement of “Wither on the Vine” that seems a little too Obscura for comfort – but even here it’s impossible not to enjoy the band’s patently ridiculous performance.
Truth be told, this approach probably wouldn’t work for most bands. Just playing things as fast as possible is no compensation for a lack of songwriting skills or a derivative delivery style. But, for whatever reason, Ophidian I successfully pull it off, again and again (and again), in a way that should rapidly – pun only slightly intended – propel them towards the top of the Tech-Death leaderboard.