Below, the debut from Finnish duo Lantern, is a grand reminder that the first rotten beat of death metal's heart still has plenty of relevance and resonance in 2013.
There are two important scene-setting points to consider before we dive into Below, the magnificently mangling full-length debut from Finnish death metal duo Lantern. First, some well-deserved recognition has to go to Lantern's record label, Dark Descent. Since its founding in 2009, the Colorado Springs-based label has released an increasingly long line of murderous metal, with much (but not all) of the label's fare favoring an old-school, seething temperament. Albums such as Anguish's Through the Archdemon's Head, Emptiness's Error, Anhedonist's Netherwards, and Horrendous's The Chills have underscored Dark Descent's excellent taste in ill-natured sounds, and the label can be confidently relied upon as a source of superbly obnoxious underground barbarity. (See Imprecation's recent slaughter-pit, Satanae Tenebris Infinita, or Ritual Necromancy's Oath of the Abyss.)
That confidence in Dark Descent has been reaffirmed time and again with the label's Finnish death metal releases. The label has already released visceral Finnish gems in Maveth's Coils of the Black Earth and Krypts' Unending Degradation, as well as two absolute essentials of grand Finnish putrescence, Vorum's Poisoned Void, and Desolate Shrine's The Sanctum of Human Darkness. The point is, the fact that Lantern's debut has Dark Descent's approving stamp tells you something about the pitiless and wonderfully wretched quality of its contents before you've heard a note. Which brings us to point number two of Lantern's tale: the band's filthy Finnish finesse.
Finland has a long and much-honored history in metal, and in a country of five million and a bit souls, Finland punches well above its weight in metal circles. Much of the nation's metal is highly respected, and Finland has proven to be a hellishly nasty nesting ground for many wonderfully loathsome and influential bands. Acts such as Beherit, Sargeist, Behxen, Oranssi Pazuzu, Hooded Menace, Rotten Sound, Horna, Barren Earth, Moonsorrow, and the sadly defunct Reverend Bizarre have all found acclaim outside their homeland (as have many other riff-heavy power, death, and black metal citizens). And Finland is, of course, home to Nightwish, Children of Bodom, and Amorphis -- the trio of acts having found a great deal of commercial success worldwide.
Lantern definitely falls into the (wonderfully) fetid camp of Finnish metal -- maintaining the '90s grimace of fellow Finnish peddlers of befouled death metal such as Abhorrence and Convulse. Lantern formed in 2007, and the duo of Cruciatus (guitar, bass, and drums) and Necrophilos (vocals) released two demos before 2011's Subterranean Effulgence EP brought the band its first significant attention. Below keeps to the gruesome and sarcophagus-friendly sound Lantern established on its first EP. The album's rancid rhythms are reminiscent of classic Nordic death metal of yore, with tracks such as "Rites of Descent", "Revenant", and "Entrenching Presences" burying twisted bursts of doom and sludgier grooves à la early era Entombed and Grave under the crawling specter of icy atmospherics.
You'll also find Autopsy and Incantation's crushing and dread-filled doom on Below, along with guttural grind, Morbid Angel's atonal and atypical riff weirdness, and abundant thrash soloing. In essence, Below is akin to '90s Floridan and Scandinavian death metal held hostage in a broken-down meat locker filled with carcasses left to rot. If you swallowed a handful of mushrooms in anticipation of a tripped-out reek of evil eccentricity, and then wrenched the doors open two decades hence, that's essentially the kind of malicious miasma that swirls around Lantern. Certainly, production wise, that stench of old is all there. The famed Sunlight Studio's Stockholm buzz of '90s death metal is covered in dirt and dunked in a glacier, with Cruciatus's riffs, percussion, and bass captured in their rawest marrow-chilling state. Necrophilos's growls and grunts are adapted to suit the mood of each track; around the vocals, coagulations of swampy melodies are torn apart by the serrated edge of Slayer-esque (circa '85) guitar leads.
Lantern is set on conjuring all the throwback antediluvian and subterranean foulness, and there's no doubt it hits that mark. Below feels contaminating, like the touch of a fly fresh from a corpse's mouth, but there's space in the mix, too -- enough for distortion and echo to play a role in ensuring the atmosphere isn't simply claustrophobic, but also demented. "Manifesting Shambolic Aura", "Demons in My Room", and the final nine-minute brilliantly bitter churn of "From the Ruins" are all ichor and entrails, squirming, ghoulish vortexes of insanity, Satan, and analog murk. However, as muddy and roily as the songs are, that doesn't stop you from appreciating the band's tarnished eloquence. Lantern shifts from curdled and mid-tempo doom into blast-beaten and chaotic sections with black metal tremolo shrills and unforeseen lurches all slithering around in the evil ooze. It's ugly, and mean, and impressively so.
There are, of course, plenty of other crypt-rattling death metal bands drenched in dirty reverb lurking about. Miasmal, Encoffination, Cruciamentum, Abyssal, Vasaeleth, and Ignivomous are as dank and dark as Lantern, and acts like Mitochondrion or Portal bring blood-dripping buckets of idiosyncrasy, too. However, like those harbingers of supremely bad news, Lantern is no mere recycler of the past. Clearly, umpteen death metal bands simply duplicate the work of the sub-genre's original architects, resulting in plenty of uninspired facsimiles. But Lantern is not here to provide some rote throwback to former glories.
The band certainly pays tribute to its forebears with its morass of death and doom smeared with malodorous black metal. But Below is a reminder that, as technical and convoluted as much death metal has become, the first rotten beat of its squalid heart has plenty of relevance and concussive resonance in 2013. Sure, antiquity is referenced, but not with a nostalgic sigh. Lantern has set out to prove that the core attributes of death metal are just as powerful and compelling today as they ever were -- and it wholly succeeds in doing just that. Below is wholeheartedly and welcomingly vile, offering 40 unsavory minutes of Golgotha vistas and graveyard blasphemies glimpsed through madhouse windows. Lantern doesn't so much snuff out the light on Below but stomp on it with hobnailed boots and then let go with a stinking stream of ancient venom on top for good measure. The album's amalgamation of the classic, contaminating, and corrupting ensures Below is one of 2013's most unsavory metal releases yet. All up, it's gruesome, primordial genius.