Monday, December 28, 2015

Swedish Death Metal Round Up 2015

2015 marked 20 years since I first embarked down the Left Hand Path (well, I started with Clandestine, but still). Since I first became obsessed with it, Swedish death metal has seen its share of ups and downs - including fickle public tastes turning from one regional scene to another and then back again. But the country remains the most reliable source of high quality heaviosity. And as much as I bemoan the dearth of originality and creativity currently plaguing the scene, I remain quite helplessly drawn to every band that comes out of it.

2 years have passed since the last Grave album, so I suppose that's as good a reason for a new one as any. Out Of Respect For The Dead is largely interchangeable with anything the band has released since Ola Lindgren reclaimed it from the abyss in the early Naughts. In fairness, Soulless aside, Grave were never as prone as their peers to take chances (some questionable covers aside). With 30 years and 11 full-lengths under their belts, they're not breaking any new ground, but there still appears to be plenty of life in this old Grave.

Unleashed were always the odd ones out in the Stockholm scene; they hardly typified the sound of the city they came from, and never recorded an album at Sunlight Studios. After attempting a more chug-centric and groovy sound in the late 90's (as did, it has to be said, most every other metal band in the world), they went in a more blast-heavy direction a decade ago and have put out some remarkably strong albums since. Dawn of the Nine sees them continuing in this vein, playing a tighter version of their original sound with more blastbeats and the occasional black metal melody. And of course, Vikings. Of particular note is the song "The Bolt Thrower", which pays tribute to the named band with some appropriately detuned strings and a double kick attack that sounds like a rickety tank. Death metal bands writing songs about other death metal bands is a strange but enjoyable thing.

There is no shortage of bands trying desperately to recreate the early days of the Stockholm scene - throw a rock and you'll hit someone with an HM-2 pedal and Left Hand Path on vinyl. For reasons I can't explain, Demonical (which has included members of Grave, Centinex, and Interment in its line-up) never got the acclaim that they deserved (apart from this blog, of course). The four song EP Black Flesh Redemption shows the band doing what they do best, bonding searing melodies to memorable songs. If this is a hint of what to expect from their next full-length, then expect that Dismember-shaped hole in your heart to be patched.

Feral were always the most hook-driven of the recent crop of Swedish death metal bands, and Where Dead Dreams Dwell is a catchy affair, akin to Soulless-era Grave or recent Facebreaker albums. When they step it up, their songs are as fast as anything that Entombed did with Nicke Andersson; but for the most part this is a fun, midpaced album that doesn't get stuck in the mire of trying to be too brutal for its own good. Feral were one of the last bands to leave an impression me before wave after wave of old school Swedish death metal left me feeling jaded and underwhelmed (and I've been living for this stuff since I was 16, so the fact that even I got sick of it should tell you something).

After leaving his brother's band, Chris Amott resurrected Armageddon - last seen as a somewhat underwhelming power/prog metal band. Captivity & Devourment sees them return to harsher waters, with growled vocals and blastbeats leading the way. Rather than the ambitious prog/death of Armageddon's sublime debut, this is more akin to the first two Arch Enemy albums: Melodic death metal with strong overtones of Malmsteen and Schenker. It's not as good as what Chris Amott started off with, but heaps better than what he's been doing lately.

The last Soilwork release was the double disc monstrosity The Living Infinite, which was overwhelming in volume but not quality. Two albums worth of Soilwork is exactly twice as much as I need, so I checked out early. Thankfully, they've reined themselves in on The Ride Majestic. I'm sure purists will bristle at shameless ear candy like Soilwork being labelled "death metal"; I suppose there's no use pointing to all the common ground they share with Death and Carcass albums from 20 years ago, or the regular appearance of blastbeats and shredding. All the same, this is the version of Swedish death metal that was most prominent during my college years, and I still have a soft spot for it. Soilwork's only fault is that they've been too consistent for too long; their albums are starting to blend together at this point. Still, few of their melodic death metal peers can still put out albums this good late in their careers - and that list includes Carcass and At the Gates.

2015 also saw the old school death metal revival slowing down considerably, and several of its most visible proponents - notably, Morbus Chron - have abandoned it for greener pastures. But Swedish death metal - as a subgenre, as a geeky obsession - shows no sign of disappearing. I'm still waiting for a new visionary - a Nicke Andersson, Mikael Åkerfeldt, or Dan Swanö - to return the genre to its mid-90's creative peak. Til then, it looks like I'll have to settle for wave after wave of middle of the road talents plugging in their HM-2 pedals and issuing an everflowing stream of passable but forgettable albums.