Death metal, when at its best, is one of the more fascinating styles in heavy metal. Its tight, extremely rigid arrangements, accented by dizzying flourishes of guitar licks, are especially pleasing to devoted musicians, but most importantly, accessible to any casual fan of progressive rock, as the underlying neoclassical melodies and the jazz-like dexterity it takes to play such music can sound awe-inspiring when in capable hands. Be it the hugely influential music of Florida legends Death (whose leader, the late Chuck Schuldiner, was the sound’s greatest innovator), Carcass, At the Gates, or even going back to the days of Mercyful Fate’s 1984 masterpiece Don’t Break the Oath, the best death metal achieves a perfect balance between the ornate and the brutal, with the ability to simultaneously please those in the moshpit, as well as the aficionados standing in the wings, drinking in every single 64th note that bleeds from the fretboards.
Death metal continues to sound strong today, led by the likes of Arch Enemy and Cryptopsy, but as good as their music sounds, not many artists have been bold enough to step forward with the intention of trying to continue where Schuldiner left off. However, a certain Turkish guitar prodigy has something to say about it. Muhammed Suicmez is one of the most gifted axemen to come around in a long time, and his first album, 1999’s Onset of Putrefaction, recorded under the name Necrophagist, has become one of the best-loved metal debuts of the past six years. Completely self-recorded, with Suicmez handling guitar, bass, drum programming, and vocals, it’s an audacious, volatile piece of work, a record simply brimming with confidence, displaying the complicated song structures of early Megadeth, the sheer power of Death, and the soloing flash of noodle kings Steve Vai and Yngwie Malmsteen.
Five years later, Necrophagist have returned with their highly anticipated follow-up, and what has death metal fans salivating this time around is the presence of three other musicians backing up Suicmez, and anyone who was awestruck by Onset of Putrefaction will be thrilled by the new album, Epitaph, thanks in large part to the new supporting cast. Second guitarist Christian Muenzner matches Suicmez note for note, and the pair tear through the extremely complex arrangements with astounding dexterity, shifting from thunderous riffing, to classic metal dual guitar harmonies, to moments of jazz fusion, to some downright gorgeous soloing. Bassist Stefan Fimmers comes off as a truly unique musician, utilizing the slap-bass tricks of Les Claypool and the nimble-fingered, upper-register basslines of Blly Sheehan and Steve Harris, while drummer Hannes Grossmann holds everything together with his exceptionally sharp polyrhythms, delivered with both precision and undeniable power.
Like any great progressive death album, Epitaph is so loaded with memorable moments in such a short timeframe (its running time is barely over half an hour), it’s best enjoyed as a single performance piece, as opposed to merely a collection of songs. That said, compositions like “Stabwound”, “The Stillborn One”, and “Diminished to Be” rank as the best examples of what the band has to offer. If there’s one flaw that could repel casual listeners, it’s Suicmez’s heavy reliance upon the same old, tried and true, “Cookie Monster” vocal style, as indecipherable lyrics are spouted in the same guttural growl used by countless bands, from Cryptopsy to Kataklysm, to dozens of others. A key factor that helped make the best death bands so great were their vocalists, who managed to sound unique, and here, it’s simply a case of Suicmez taking on one too many tasks.
Still, Necrophagist’s songs provide more than enough musical thrills, and the weak vocals become secondary to the musicianship, as it’s impossible not to become lost in the mesmerizing proficiency of the band’s four members. This is a band on the cusp of greatness, and Epitaph is an album that should be mandatory listening for any fan of the genre. If they ever fix that lead vocal problem, then look out.