For all death metal’s thuggish brutality, not to mention its macabre and delightfully nauseating subject matter, the leading exponents of the genre produce some seriously catchy tunes. It might be ugly, it might be unpleasant—it might even be downright objectionable—but the finest death metal is filled with filthy little groove-laden fissures you can’t help but get snagged in.
And then there’s technical death metal. The genre’s savant-like sibling whose complex, poly-rhythmic riffs and fusion and avant-jazz fuelled oscillations are frequently so convoluted as to seem deliberately uninviting.
Technical death metal was birthed by a raft of bands that wrapped the aesthetics of death metal in a mind-boggling cocoon of dissonant riffs, bizarre solos, weird time signatures and very strange harmonics. Bands like Death, Atheist, Cynic, Gorguts, Necrophagist and Cryptopsy—along with many others—established a genre that dispensed with the swaggering, hooky ensnarement of traditional death metal. Instead, it relied on fans who enjoyed deciphering labyrinthine, riff-filled puzzles.
The contemporary technical death metal scene is replete with spectacularly dexterous musicians. Fans worship groups such as Ulcerate, Obscura, Origin, and Decapitated, so when a band like Sweden’s Spawn of Possession, featuring current and former members of legendary technical death bands Necrophagist and Obscura, reappears after a five-year absence, it’s big news in the underground.
Spawn of Possession’s third album, Incurso, is a painstakingly assembled example of ridiculous levels of virtuosity and complexity, and like the band’s previously celebrated releases, it contains zero material likely to appeal to anyone desiring undemanding music. And nor should it; technical death metal is not made for the casual fan. With mathematically precise compositions mixing with free-jazz configurations, and a highly eccentric band, it all makes for a deranged and jarring listen.
While Incurso begins with some gentle progressive sauntering on “Abodement”, it’s not long before vocalist Dennis Röndum’s gurgles arrive, along with elaborate riffing from guitarists Christian Müenzner and Jonas Bryssling. From then on it’s heads-down serpentine insanity. The next three tracks, “Where Angels Go Demons Follow”, “Bodiless Sleeper” and the epic nine-minute stunner “The Evangelist”, reveal everything you need to know about the album. That’s not to suggest the rest of the tracks are mere reproductions of one another—although admittedly, encountering any technical death metal for the first time will leave you wondering where one song ends and another begins. It’s really the uninhibited deviations within those songs that define Spawn of Possession and underscore the album’s willful experimentalism (and that of the entire genre).
On that trio of tracks you’ll find a seemingly never-ending array of outlandish and unorthodox riffs and solos tussling with Henrik Schönström’s versatile, often blazing, percussion and Erlend Caspersen’s corpulent slapping bass—which adds substantial textural thump throughout. Mixed in with that are Röndum’s vocals. These are strictly of the subterranean variety, ranging from guttural gruesomeness to bestial barks. It’s an overwhelming audio assault, and at 50-plus minutes that’s a lot of time to submit to such punishment. Incurso could easily have been trimmed and retained its powerful impact. But then, technical death metal is definitely not a genre known for its self-restraint.
The things about technical death metal that people commonly complain about are the things that make fans of the genre so unbelievably fervent. Critics would point to a track like “Apparition” and see it as yet more evidence of the genre’s depersonalization—an ethos that demands actual tunes be sacrificed over speed, dexterity and incalculable numbers of riffs. They might also suggest that Spawn of Possession’s songwriting abilities are in question—not its prowess, that’s undeniable—more its ability to write anything memorable. All those arguments might seem reasonable, especially for anyone looking for some hummable melodies, but they ultimately miss the point.
Fans of technical death metal love it because it is so utterly unhinged. “Apparition” has an orchestral introduction, weird angular riffs, throat-cutting vocals and symphonic flourishes. It’s packed with over-the-top theatricality, moving through varying moods every few seconds. Where others see tweaked-out sterility, fans see innovative arrangements that have as much in common with neo-classical compositions as with any metal outfit. It’s understandable that for the uninitiated a track like “Spiritual Deception” is going to sound like a hellish cacophony of noise. You need to be inoculated to enjoy albums like this—start off with some Suffocation and pepper it with some of Voivod’s idiosyncrasies. It takes time to work up to bands like Spawn of Possession, but the fact that the music is so alien and demanding increases the eventual pay-off. When you’re acclimatized to the ferociousness and multifaceted density of it all, it becomes abundantly clear why technical death metal is so popular, and why bands like Spawn of Possession are so revered.
Incurso is not an album to be treated lightly. It is stunningly complex, and while critics will point to its maelstrom-like tumults as more evidence to heap upon the pyre of self-indulgence, they’d be grossly misunderstanding the band and the genre as a whole. Albums such as this are crafted for those seeking challenging music that requires dedication to decrypt—something you could say about any adventurous music renowned for ‘difficult’ phrasings. It’s a wise strategy, because it requires fans to fully engage with everything. Technical death metal is not taken in half measures.
Merciless, devastatingly heavy and utterly demented—that’s a fair summation of Incurso. The gauntlet’s been thrown down; it’s up to you to decide if you’re brave enough to pick it up.
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