Sunday, January 1, 2012

State of Death Metal, 2011

Morbid Angel's long awaited return (and for some people, long-awaited reunion with eyeliner enthusiast David Vincent) caused no small amount of consternation in the death metal underground. The word had gone out in advance that Morbid Angel had "gone techno," and death metal fans were at turns livid and dismissive of their new direction. My first listen to the album had me hoping that the cd came packaged with glowsticks and a hit of ecstacy. I don't, in principle, have any problem with electronica-infused metal - Godflesh broke down the walls between hesher and raver 20 years ago; the Berzerker did the death-chno thing and were frequently brilliant; and anyone who thinks that housebeats can't be heavy should have a word with Red Harvest.

In truth, the rancor to Illud Divina is a bit of an over-reaction. Half of the songs are classic Morbid Angel and as good as anything they've done since the mid-90's (though tellingly, the best of these were 2 songs written by Destructhor of Zyklon and Myrkskog fame).

Of the sketchier songs, only the closing track (ironically titled "Mea Culpa") comes close to living up to Trey Azagtoth's claims that he's finding new ways of making Morbid Angel extreme (though the song would be improved innumerably by dropping the techno and letting drum scab Tim Yeung just BLAST). "I'm Morbid" takes Marilyn Manson's "Antichrist Superstar," puts it through the death metal ringer and adds some entertainingly Sondheim-esque vocal phrasing. It's a rare case of something being so dumb that it's awesome.

The remaining three songs are as bad as their death-disco reputation suggests, and bring terrible flashbacks of Vincent shaking his hips in the Genitorturers. It's baffling how Trey and "Evil D" thought that they could get away with passing off such dated, hackneyed songs as revolutionary. What's even worrying is the possibility that Trey actually thought they were, in fact, revolutionary.

Morbid Angel picked a lousy year to stage a comeback. If Illud was released in 2010 amidst that year's critically lauded experimental albums (and general lack of quality death metal), Trey and company may have gotten away with their half-baked melange of gabber and blast. In 2011, though, they found themselves in the company of returning veterans at the top of their game, and newer bands using MA's style as a jumping off point in their own bid for elite status, including two that feature Morbid Angel alumni.

Erik Rutan's Hate Eternal have been heavily hyped since their debut was released in 1999; as a true death metal OG (Ripping Corpse, bitches!) and producer/engineer of some of the best death metal albums of the last 10 years, Rutan is one of the genre's major figureheads. It's unsurprising that the former Morbid Angel guitarist's work is largely in the style of his former colleagues, but credit should go to him in trying to outdo them in terms of outright extremity, culminating in 2009's claustrophobia-inducing Fury and Flames. Hate Eternal's latest album, Phoenix Amongst the Ashes, shows the band easing up on the brain melting density of that previous album to include Cattle Decapitation-style skronk.

8 years after leaving Morbid Angel under dark clouds, David Vincent's understudy Steve Tucker has resurfaced in Nader Sadek, named after the Egyptian visual artist who put the project together. I had been seeing flyers for the album for almost a year before it was released; the notion of a collaboration between Mayhem's Blasphemer (guitars), Cryptopsy's Flo Mounier (drums) and Tucker promised, at the very least, a highly enjoyable train wreck. The truth is, it's one of the best, most original death metal albums in years. The album takes Blasphemer's skewed, blackened riffing splits the difference between Norwegian black metal's eerier moments and the creeping lava style of, naturally, Morbid Angel.

Abysmal Dawn parlay their tech chops into actual songs, complete with (gasp!) memorable choruses. It's a meisterstroke for populist death metal, and one that will serve as a high watermark for years to come. If Leveling the Plane of Existence has one fault, it's that the production is so clean you could eat creme brulee off of it. It serves their precision well, but their monstrous hooks deserve at least a little bit of gore caked on them.

For the past decade, Azarath have been rising stars in the Polish death metal scene, and for good reason - they feature Behemoth's Inferno on drums. Blasphemer's Malediction, their 5th album (but first after a significant line-up reshuffling) ditches the lurching Immolation-isms of their previous two albums for a straight-ahead blackened death metal assault...which is a shame, as it was those lurching parts that made them so interesting. Still, this isn't an album that's easy to write off, due to its relative sophistication and confidence. One thing's for sure: this wipes the floor with Lightning Swords of Death, Abominant, and all the American bands who've attempted this style recently.

Of course, one can hardly discuss Polish death metal without Vader, the grand-daddies of the scene. Welcome to the Morbid Reich, their 9th album (not counting live albums, compilations, and demo repackagings) features a somewhat more restrained Vader than the one seen on 2009's blastastic Necropolis.  Not that Vader have changed their sound in any dramatic way; it's just that the new album has more epic overtones over the death-thrash assault, presumably the influence of new lead guitarist Marek Pająk (formerly of prog-death band Esquarial).  Like most recent Vader albums, it features a re-recording of a song from their demo days, in this case "Decapitated Saints" from their debut.  This is a jackhammer that doesn't break any new ground, but for die-hards like me in need of their Vader fix, it hits the spot.

Like Vader, Krisiun were a band that renewed my faith in death metal in the late 90's when the genre seemed stagnant and unexciting. They exploded in those heady days and, along with bands like Hate Eternal and Behemoth, led the charge for death metal's return to relentless extremity. Since those days, though, the band has worked hard to balance their earlier hyperblasting style with experimentation, in an attempt to avoid becoming stagnant and uninteresting themselves. And in that, they've been largely successful. The Great Execution is for the most part business as usual for them, though their business is slower this time around. Krisiun does employ a few inventive touches here and there, like the flamenco guitars on "The Sword of Orion." The approach pays off as when they bring back the hyperblast (such as "Extinção Em Massa"), the effect is devastating.

When talking about extreme metal from Switzerland, it's inevitable to think of the wild (and sometimes embarrassing) experimentation of Celtic Frost or Samael; Requiem, however, peddle thrash-influenced death metal in the glorious European tradition of Sinister and Thanatos, with enough blackened melody to keep things interesting. It's pretty meat-and-potatoes stuff for the most part, but with their streamlined approach (they're a power-trio, a rarity in death metal these days), they definitely make a case for less being more.

With their latest album Entity, Origin had the unenviable task of following up the greatest album of its career (the best death metal album of the decade for this longtime devotee) without their longtime guitarist and songwriter Jeremy Turner. Kudos then to Paul Ryan, the sole remaining original member, for resisting the temptation to disappear down the rabbit hole by creating a faster, heavier, or more technical album album - almost assuredly a failed pursuit - and focusing on writing memorable songs. It's not Antithesis Pt 2, but it wipes the floor with every other metal album this year. Tremble, 2011: Mighty Origin have made you their bitch.