(After a bit of a hiatus, Gonzo returns to NCS today with a pair of reviews for albums released last month.)
So, here we are again. It’s been a hot minute since I’ve been able to post on these venerable pages; the reasons for which are now, thankfully, in my rearview mirror. Alas, despite being in the recent past, said reasons are no less infuriating, and a grim reminder of how chaos and discord can overtake your life in the span of one simple afternoon. But we won’t get into that mess here.
It’s been a stressful summer, to be sure, but forcing myself to withdraw from the world and delve into music has always been a sacred source of therapy for this maladjusted writer. (People I work with would refer to this as “disassociating,” but I call it…well, shit, you got me in a box here, forget it.)
In a few weeks, I’ll have my yearly end-of-summer roundup ready to post here, supplanting my usual monthly column. There’ll be plenty for you to sort through when that happens.
But for now, I thought I’d preempt that with two albums that share at least one thing in common: The new albums from Denver’s Astral Tomb and Toledo’s Astralborne. Besides sharing the word “astral” in their respective band names, these two acts have unleashed searing new records that deserve to be heard.
ASTRAL TOMB, TOTAL SPIRITUAL DEATH
Hailing from just down the road in my home city of Denver, the death metal maestros in Astral Tomb have followed up last year’s under-the-radar Soulgazer with a blistering, challenging opus. Total Spiritual Death is one of those albums that likely won’t fully resonate on the first listen – there’s a lot going on here, both conceptually and musically, but once you figure out what they’re trying to do, the record begins to truly reveal itself to patient ears.
With the technical precision of Atheist, the abrasive discord of Dillinger Escape Plan, and the frantic death metal bombast of Blood Incantation, the members of Astral Tomb clearly enjoy stretching every blood-soaked sinew of their songwriting and musicianship skills to their limits. “Cathedral” slams out of the gates with a discordant, jarring intro, paving the way beautifully for a bass breakdown that borders on downright jazzy. In the same breath, they easily pivot and unleash a fiery sonic hell that evokes moments of classic Atheist, only with growls that could cremate human remains.
“All black ‘vette” opens with chunky riffage and a surprising use of female vocals for the first few bars. Once that memorable, head-nodding groove sticks around long enough, Tomb takes you on another ride into the unpredictable for the rest of the song. It’s an album highlight, to be sure, and sets up more of what’s to come.
“Coward” chugs its way out next, wedging in bits of moody atmosphere in between ferocious, paint-peeling blast beats. At this point in the album on my first listen, I began to realize just how much meat Astral Tomb can cram into a single song. For a band that’s on their second LP, it’s an impressive body of work already.
The post-rock interlude of “Soulgaze” breaks up the cacophony nicely before the near-14-minute behemoth of “Funeral of self” hits next. It’s a fucking juggernaut of a song that embraces the aforementioned cramming of good ideas and really takes it to the next level. The band slows down, lurches forward, and reinvents itself several times over during the course of the song, resulting in a quality study in death metal impermanence.
When “Eyes wide shut” closes us out, I felt like I did after watching Oppenheimer for the first time – you enjoyed the hell out of it, but there’s inevitably going to be some shit you missed. And that’s not for lack of paying attention or disinterest – there’s just simply a lot of ideas to unpack and favorite passages to spin up again. If I’m being critical, I’d say the smattering of ideas across Total Spiritual Death teeters on the verge of being too much, but it thankfully knows when to reel itself in before getting lost on the ambitious trail it blazes.
ASTRALBORNE, ACROSS THE AEONS
If you’ve read anything I’ve written since I began submitting incoherent metal-centric garble to NCS in the past four years, you’ll know that I have a Gothenburg-sized soft spot for melodeath. It’s convenient, then, that the second album from Ohio trio Astralborne rounds out my “astral” duality for this column.
Sporting the molasses-thick vocals reminiscent of Kalmah with fretwork that brings to mind early Insomnium, Across the Aeons is the sound of a band finding its identity. It’s always impressive to me that a three-piece can craft songs as dense and intricate as these – oftentimes throughout the album’s beefy 12 tracks, you couldn’t be blamed for assuming the band had two guitarists instead of just one.
“Nocturneous” comes marauding out like it’s a B-side from One for Sorrow, with intricately woven leads that surf on top of bottom-heavy chugs and grooves. Axe man Derik Smith puts on a clinic here, as he does several other times on the record. “Gemini,” which was released prior to the album as a single, starts off with a slow build and charges forth as it unfurls. It packs an enormous amount of shredding and dizzying tempo changes that somehow manage to squeeze into five minutes, never letting up for a second.
“Promethean Fire” makes a grandiose entrance and doesn’t let up. The song is so engaging that I barely even noticed the absence of any vocals. It’s entirely ephemeral, though, as bassist/vocalist Paul Fuzinski’s telltale roar comes back the minute “Star of Extinction” hits the speakers.
It’s at this point that the songs do start to blend into one another, but I could say that for a fairly wide swath of melodeath records that I still hold close to my heart to this day. And that’s to take nothing away, talent-wise, from the final four songs on Across the Aeons. “The Pillars of Creation” channels some definite black metal energy in its first minute, with furious tremolo picking being the standout. The title track definitely evokes more Insomnium, with the heartbreaking “Cadence of Sorrow” taking us back home. This one reminded me of Exulansis and their brilliant performance at this year’s Northwest Terror Fest.
Through and through, expect to see more buzz for Astralborne as this album continues to make its way through the grimy metal underbelly. It’s simply too fucking good to not be.