Thursday, July 28, 2011

2011 death-metal top 5 (so far)

A confession: I've spent more time defending Illud Divinum Insanus, the new Morbid Angel album that came out last month and was immediately met with a storm of contempt, than actually listening to it. I was so busy elucidating why I felt it wasn't the piece of crap so many others pegged it to be that I glossed over the fact that it might not be such a durable statement. Is it crap? Absolutely not. Is it a great Morbid Angel album? Let's just say that I'm not sure it will stand the test of time the way Covenant or even Heretic has.

I've read a lot of reviews that take an "ignore Illud and try THIS instead" stance, pointing to some "truer" recent representative of the death-metal ideal (Nader Sadek's In the Flesh, e.g., which features ex-Morbid frontman Steve Tucker). That seems dubious to me. I kind of feel like it's important to deal with the record at hand and not judge it against some broad, nebulous convention.

All the same, it's hard to ignore the fact that 2011 has been an outstanding year for meat-and-potatoes death metal, and as much as I hate to admit it, Illud Divinum Insanus is not one of the main reasons why. With all due respect to Morbid Angel, here are five of my 2011 death-metal favorites, all of which will be in the running come year-end-list time.

Surreal Overdose (Patac)

This Virgina band has a long and illustrious history in the metal underground, a history I knew pretty much nothing about. I've heard their name for years, and I've always been sort of tickled by the name of drummer/bandleader KING FOWLEY when I've come across it in metal mags, but before this record, I'd never really investigated Deceased. I think I had an impression of them as one of the countless sub–Cannibal Corpse bands who purvey pummeling yet faceless grunt-and-grind over lengthy careers. I could not have been more wrong in this (essentially baseless) preconception, though: Make no mistake, Deceased is a seriously progressive band, and this record is a bona fide epic.

There's definitely some straight-up blasting death metal on Surreal Overdose—their sixth full-length—but there's just as much rollicking hardcore and, crucially, triumphant thrash. I've been getting down to a lot of …And Justice for All and Rust in Peace lately, and this album thrives on a brand of riff obsession that reminds me of that late-’80s/early-’90s tech-thrash flowering. Combine that sensibility with anthemic, punklike choruses and a serious dystopian sci-fi jones and you've got a very vintage-style album, almost Voivod-ish in its obsessive devotion to epic narrative scope, where the music feels like a constantly deepening STORYLINE.

As raw as the band sounds—Fowley's vocals remind me a bit of Sepultura's Max Cavalera—there's a real progginess to this album that I just love. Sound effects, dialogue samples, constant tempo changes, just tons and tons of INTRIGUE and MEMORABILITY. I actually think of this album as not terribly distant from something like David Comes to Life by Fucked Up (which I also really dig)—taking an "extreme" musical style and polishing it with a sort of epic sheen. The result in each case is a best-of-both-worlds scenario—a fascinating marriage of the primitive and the grand. I seriously doubt I will hear a better metal album (let alone death metal) than this in 2011. Hear/buy it via Bandcamp. Here's a track:

All Guts, No Glory (Relapse)

Like Deceased, Exhumed is another band I'd heard of for years that I'd basically written off as generic. (In both cases, maybe the band names had something to do with it?) But thanks to some very intriguing recent coverage over at Invisible Oranges, including this wildly entertaining essay on Metallica's "Trapped Under Ice" by Exhumed guitarist Matt Harvey," I decided to give their new one a look. And man, this album just smokes.

Like on Surreal Overdose, there's a major thrash/hardcore thing going on here, an almost hysterical riff obsession. Exhumed shares with Deceased a certain over-the-top-ness, but if in Deceased that quality plays out in pulpy, nerdy narrative grandiosity, in Exhumed it comes across as more of a heathen-ish zaniness. There's sinister-minded camp all over this record, from the gruesomely funny cover art (depicting the band members as flesh-eating zombies) to the cornball song titles ("Your Funeral, My Feast") and the "one guy shrieking, the other one barfing" dual-vocal approach. But I assure you, this music is absolutely dead serious. The riffage (not to mention the soloing) simply could not be more righteous. I hear this stuff, and I just want to headbang at warp speed. Guitar nerds, you will be in heaven. This one is also on Bandcamp. Here's the aforementioned "Your Funeral…":

P.S. I was super-intrigued when Invisible Oranges labeled the previous Exhumed effort, Anatomy Is Destiny, "the …And Justice for All of goregrind" (in the intro to this Matt Harvey Q&A). Having sampled Anatomy a bit on Spotify over the last few days, I'm glad to report that this assessment isn't far off.

Towards the Megalith (Profound Lore)\

Incantation—yet another veteran death-metal band that I'd long assumed was kind of marginal. All the same, I knew that they were revered in the underground, so when I heard that a new Profound Lore band, Disma, featured former Incantation member Craig Pillard on the mic, I was intrigued.

Towards the Megalith does not disappoint in the least. If Surreal Overdose and All Guts are all about being pelted with rapid-fire streams of ideas (riffs, words, what have you), Towards the Megalith lumbers along at a much slower pace. Whether moving at molasses-y doom speed or a bottom-heavy midtempo, this band has enormous girth to it. You think of elephants and tanks and other sluggish yet unstoppable forces. Pillard's got a classic death-metal growl-and-gurgle style. Like a lot about Towards the Megalith, his delivery is familiar yet extremely satisfying. This band just wants to create a sense of slo-mo menace, without getting too ponderous or emo about it. The record's title is apt: You really do start to think of ancient societies and their terrifying moonlight rites when you hear this one. You can check out one track over at Stereogum, and one at Profound Lore, where you can also (of course) buy the record.

Macabre Eternal (Peaceville)

Out of all these bands, Autopsy is the one I'd had the most prior experience with. I wasn't hip to their early classics, such as 1991's Mental Funeral, at the time they came out, but I caught up to them over the past few years and was seriously impressed. The band seemed truly committed to taking Sabbathy evil-ness and riff worship and pushing these concepts into the realm of ugly, gross-out death metal. As on the old records, I'm not in love with the delivery of vocalist of Chris Reifert (who, like King Fowley, doubles in drums), who can sound overly cartoonish to me, like a parody of death-metal vocals. But there's a certain camp to what he does that fits in well with Autopsy's relentless garagey vibe. The playing is proficient as hell, but the band plays with a real rock & roll rawness. Unlike some death metal, which seems utterly disconnected from the blues, Autopsy is all about the sludgy churn, the badass midtempo groove. As with their old stuff, it's quite a treat on Macabre Eternal (their picking-up-right-where-they-left-off "comeback") to hear those core hard-rock values married to pulpy, gore-obsessed lyrical themes. Hear some samples and pick up Macabre Eternal at Peaceville.

Cannabis Corpse

Beneath Grow Lights Thou Shalt Rise (Tankcrimes)

What a fantastically fun record this is. As you might guess from the name, Cannabis Corpse started as something of a joke: I'm not quite clear on whether they were actually covering Cannibal Corpse songs (replacing all the blood-and-guts lyrics with lyrics about weed) or simply riffing on Cannibal's song titles and imagery. To be clear, though: Despite the titles punning on classic death-metal tracks by Decide, Morbid Angel and the like, all the current Cannabis material is original, and with this new record, these guys have taken a major step up in the seriousness-of-craft department.

These guys may just have Cannibal Corpse themselves beat when it comes to playing death metal that ROCKS. The orchestration on this album is absolutely incredible: Every instrument has its place, and all the components groove together so hard. (The beautifully clear production doesn't hurt.) The approach reminds me more of something like Thin Lizzy than it does death metal, a genre in which clarity and instrument separation and naturalness-of-sound don't tend to be high priorities. Despite the growly vocals, these guys actually sound like a more thrash-metal-informed version of the Fucking Champs to me than death metal proper. As with the Champs, these guys play extremely CRAFT-FORWARD metal, metal which has no interest in default rawness. They've written some extremely accomplished and detailed songs here, and they obviously want you be able to hear exactly what's going on.

As with every Cannabis Corpse listener, you've probably got preconceptions that they're a joke band, but this is probably the most pro presentation I've heard on a metal record this year: playing, songwriting, orchestration, production—it all just sounds beautiful and you need to hear it. Get thee to Bandcamp! Here's a track:


Phil said...

Thanks for this post! I actually had not heard any of the albums you highlighted yet... so this prompted me to check out a couple of them today.

First was the Cannabis Corpse album and indeed it is totally killer! I can definitely see this one going into heavy rotation.

I also checked out the new Exhumed...very cool as well.

Next up will probably be Deceased.

Some of my favorites so far this year would be Liturgy's "Aesthethica" (I have tried my best to ignore all the controversy and just enjoy the music which is totally mindbending), The Human Absract's "Digital Veil" (maybe not really "metal" but really great progressive hardcore nonetheless) and Origin's "Entity" (not only do they continue to raise the bar for technical grind/death they totally destroy the bar with their power, fury, speed and incomprehensible riffs).

I would be curious to hear your thoughts on these albums...

mcgillroy said...

what's your take on the new decapitated?! 'carnival is forever' is my preliminary record of the year contender! amazingly tight, inventive and relentless record. very psychedelic moments and insane riffs. check it out!

Phil said...

I'm back. I just listened to the new Deceased album and...


That is all...