The Sound the Earth Makes While Vomiting the Grotesque
In underground metal, ritualized hymns are brought to the boil in the catacombs of the psyche, pointing to the malevolence that awaits in the darkness of the cosmos, linking the baleful depths of the Earth directly with the ominousness of galaxies overhead.
Picture a cave, with a forbidding Hellmouth of an entrance.
Now take a step inside, and look around.
The cave you're visualizing might be dank and dark, with constricting tunnels winding off into the distance, or perhaps your cave is flooded, the floor hidden beneath a slurry that looks set to make you deathly ill upon first touch. Maybe you've something more spacious in mind? Your cave might have stalagmites or stalactites littering the surrounds, making for a dimly lit alien landscape. Or could your cave be dry as a desert? The floor covered in scattered bones, the leftovers from some hideous and unseen carnivorous troglodyte's feast.
However you choose to picture your cave, it's a reminder that the shadowy depths of subterranean netherworlds might well be a spelunker’s playground, but they're also filled with mystery and menace. The underworld has long held a fascination for those of us in the arts, with post-apocalyptic novels aplenty seeing humankind forced underground, while tales of journeys through Hell, visits to the centre of the Earth, and investigations of the labyrinths beneath our feet fill bookshelves. Films, too, have explored the depths. From sci-fi, drama and horror to documentaries, such as Werner Herzog's Cave of Forgotten Dreams, a film that asks questions about "the nature of humanity itself and the transience of humankind".
Certainly, caves around the world have fired the imagination since pre-historic times. They distort the senses and make us consider the void. They’ve also led us to ponder great philosophical questions, best exhibited in religious traditions that tell of the firmamental reward awaiting the righteous, and the sub-terrestrial reception awaiting the wicked.
What does a big old hole in the ground have to do with heavy metal? Everything.
Metal is touted as an underground phenomenon due to its often niche appeal. However, with the underground also representing wickedness, pitilessness and hostility, the music birthed in the deepest pits of metal could also be seen as encompassing, and enthusiastically promoting, those same traits. You could argue that metal descended to the underground on day one, with Black Sabbath's Tony Iommi wringing every ounce of the diabolus in musica from a downward trajectory that signaled corruption and iniquity (both elements of historical and contemporary import in metal). Metal bands dig deep with downtuned, mangling tones to explore tectonic frequencies, conjuring fathomless horror and anguish in the process. They accentuate the depths of depravity and despair that we can sink to as a species. And, ritualized hymns are brought to the boil in the catacombs of the psyche, pointing to the malevolence that awaits in the darkness of the cosmos, linking the baleful depths of the Earth directly with the ominousness of galaxies overhead.
If there's one metal sub-genre that wallows in caverns of nastiness, and was spawned in the recesses of minds filled with gruesome creativity, it's death metal. The roll call of bands that first excavated such realms is well known. They brought guttural growls, distortion, atonality, and battery, butchery and bludgeon -- frequently burying melody 600 feet down into the Earth.
A pioneering band like Incantation, with its classic releases -- 1992's Onward to Golgotha and 1994's Mortal Throne of Nazarene -- had a profound impact on the depths of death metal. Incantation gouged deeper into the gloom and doom of the gaping Hellmouth than many had previously dared, proving to be hugely influential in the process. Death metal has sprouted many offshoots since its birth -- with technical byways, chest-beating landscapes, slamming breakdowns, and shiny melodic terrain all thoroughly traversed -- but abundant bands still reek of the vileness that Incantation unearthed.
These days, the stream of releases from death metal bands wallowing in sinkholes and heaping horror upon terror is overflowing. Bands like Ritual Necromancy, Necrowretch, Maveth, Diocletian, Grave Miasma, Father Befouled and Ignivomous are ripe with the noisomeness of the underground. The stench and stain of the crypt is all over Nominon, Horrendous, Weregoat, Hooded Menace, Lantern, Funebrarum, Coffins, Dead Congregation, and Krypts. The presence of things bizarre and befouled haunts the work of Mitochondrion, Portal, Abyssal and Tribulation. And, for those who enjoy the unholy combination of black and death metal, Desolate Shrine, Teitanblood, Revenge, Wrathprayer, Witchrist or Vassafor have sinful sounds to suit.
The amount of fetor and filth you can exhume seems endless when you dig deep into the death metal underground. However, there's been a trio of releases of late, from Antediluvian, Vasaeleth and Bölzer, that have been excellent examples of the kinds of barbarity spawned in the caverns of truly deathly death metal.
It's no coincidence that religions all over the globe have linked caves with our damnation. Caves are sub-astral, dirty and dark, just like the deviant acts we commit on and with each other. The imagery is hardly subtle, and the message is manifestly clear, especially when women's sexuality is tied to some imagined grotto of sin that the pious and patriarchal have always feared and sought to govern. Of course, that's not the only cave-like orifice deemed perilous, profane, and needing to be controlled. Accordingly, sex, death, disease, and eternal suffering are all tied to the sinful pleasures symbolically and metaphorically represented by the apparently blasphemous entranceway of the cave.
Of course, when humankind was busy hunting and gathering, and seeking shelter from the elements and anything that would make a meal of them, caves often represented something very different. They were linked to a world where everything was magick. The rising and setting sun, birth and death, and the changing of the seasons were seen to be driven by supernatural forces, and a deep reverence of the gods and goddesses thought to control those elements of life was strong.
Then the Abrahamic religions arrived, to claim dominion over, and diminish, nature's magick -- claiming one god for all, and attempting to wrestle control of the beast within. It's into that atavistic stew of sin, magick, and religiousness that Canadian band Antediluvian strode with early releases such as Prehistorik Khaos. However, the fittingly titled Revelations in Excrement EP, from 2011, captures the demoniacal stench and tone of Antediluvian's aesthetic perfectly. Like its moniker suggests, Antediluvian wallows around in a stinking swamp of devolution, taking all that is cavernous and crazed about the legacies of Incantation and Autopsy, and throwing that into a crushingly heavy and toxic mire of blackened death metal, to give birth to a mutated and mutilated sound.
Antediluvian's debut full-length, 2011's Through the Cervix of Hawaah, was a vile purge of abhorrence and abscessed noise, and it's a fiendishly crusty and unorthodox death metal classic if ever there was one. The band followed up the album with two split releases, including the fantastically twisted Initiated in Impiety as Mysteries with Adversarial, and Antediluvian's latest release, λόγος, continues the band's descent into the mystery of the netherworlds.
Through the Cervix of Hawaah took the orificial route ("Ophidian phalanges thrust. Plunges the spore... Through the cervix of Hawaah") and Antediluvian reveled in the provocation accompanying that journey. However, λόγος takes a different, though still descending path, with Antediluvian aiming to provide a meditation on the "primordial abyss of pre-existence". The nine tracks that make up the album certainly tick all the boxes for providing the writhing "abominable mass" the band seeks to conjure, and in that sense, λόγος's pummel and putridness maintains the same obnoxious tone as Antediluvian's previous work.
Still, as the band suggests, λόγος is a meditation (of a sort), and its best elements are those that reflect the mayhem and confusion in our own minds when considering time before time. Frenzied and dissonant noise has always played a strong role in Antediluvian's sound, but λόγος dives right off the deep end into a non-stop, seething maelstrom of unhinged artistry.
Buckling riffs, ferocious percussion, and Haasiophis and Nabucodnosor's pit-dwelling vocals coalesce into a distorting quagmire on λόγος. You could call the album ‘avant-garde’, except that it seems far too highfalutin a word to describe the madness here; but that's not to say λόγος is simply noise for noise’s sake.
Tracks such as "Consummate Spellbound Synapses", "Towers of Silence", and "The Ash and the Stars" might be churning pits of muck and murk, but there's a lot of technicality buried within, too. In fact, the combination of the band’s blistering assault and its masterful, evocative shading is the biggest difference between λόγος and Antediluvian's past works. On one hand, λόγος descends even further into utter insanity, and yet it's also Antediluvian's most nuanced release too. If you're looking for hooks to hang on to, forget it. They've all been blasted away by vortexes of clotted riffing, and any hint of harmony is quickly trodden on by the crooked chords.
However, λόγος is dense, real dense, and tracks like "Death Meta", "Nuclear Crucifixion (Turning the Spear Inward)" and "Beyond Diurnal Winds" are filled with conflict and tension battling to hold form in raw and structureless cacophonies. It's a melee that is, on one level, just filth and noise, but it's also bursting with multi-dimensional portals offering the perfect view of pre-history's barbarity.
As with Antediluvian's past work, λόγος is a challenging listen, even in a sub-genre filled with plenty of other confronting acts. Still, like similar sonic kin Portal or Mitochondrion, repeated listens bring the nuance to the surface, and there's something deeply mesmerizing about the swamp of noise that λόγος provides. In the end, to press play on λόγος is to find the tomb entrance slamming shut, trapping you within 30 or more minutes of pandemonium, crawling eccentricity, and murderousness. Perfect for anyone seeking a trip back in time to have their nerves tested by darkness and claustrophobia.
(Keep an eye and ear out for Antediluvian's Septentrional Theophany 7-inch, which accompanies the first issue of Haruspex Zine available through label Nuclear War Now! It adds yet another unorthodox dimension to Antediluvian's sound.)
Vasaeleth: All Uproarious Darkness
Caves were shelters, sites of sacrifice, and inevitably coffins for early humankind. To be deep within a cave is a return to the tenor of those times. Cut off from the stimuli of the modern world, it is only you, your fears and time immemorial down there. The darkness and echoes understandably evoke all manner of grim contemplations. Whether it be the anticipation of some Lovecraftian horror slithering up from the bowels of the Earth, or a ravenous animal awakening from its winter slumber, what skulks in the underground has terrorized us since we first started scratching artworks on cave walls.
If you've ever spent time in a cave, then you've probably experienced the momentary panic of considering such things. Perhaps a monster arising hasn't been your first concern, but tunnels do collapse and people do get lost, and being unable to return to the surface may have flashed through your mind. However, there's another side to that equation, where the possibility of staying underground is more deliberate, and you find yourself enjoying that darkness and dread. There's something intensely alluring about crawling around in Mother Earth's intestines, something that ties into the primordial desire to live animalistic lives, free from the strictures of modern society. Of course, you don’t need to visit a cave to experience that feeling because the ugliest (i.e., best) death metal has always called to mind the attraction of the savage, and that's something that US-based duo Vasaeleth does exceptionally well.
Death metal has always been about bringing gruesome visions into full view, and it requires no stretch of the imagination to visualize drummer Antinom and vocalist, guitarist, bassist and keyboardist OA crafting Vasaeleth's music in a cavern strewn with viscera. In 2010, the band released its debut full-length, Crypt Born & Tethered to Ruin, and the death-worship therein garnered plenty of underground attention. However, also of note was that Vasaeleth's quarrying of the wretched and sickening catered to no sense of accessibility whatsoever, and yet, Crypt Born & Tethered to Ruin deservedly turned up on plenty of end of year metal lists--rating far higher than works from more widely recognized bands.
Crypt Born & Tethered to Ruin's tar-pit of auditory filth no doubt proved enticing for many because Incantation's first few albums had already outlined the gateway to the underworld that Vasaeleth plunged into, although it's important to point out that the chasms subsequently explored were very much of Vasaeleth's making. Thematically, lyrics from "Curse Seeping through Flesh" told you all you needed to know about the band's unhealthy interests. "... Eyes cut from the skull of mankind. Hands bound in prayer to the endless, to the abyss... to decay flesh to dust." Visions of dread, illustrations of despair, and portrayals of devilry made up the marrow of Crypt Born & Tethered to Ruin, and following its release, Vasaeleth explored those themes further on two split releases, including the excellent Profane Limbs of Ruinous Death, with Finland's equally predacious Vorum.
Vasaeleth's latest release, the All Uproarious Darkness EP, delivers five primitive tracks, as devastating and doused in occultism as the band's previous work. Production wise, the EP is a raw and septic slurry--think a body farm melting after winter, all ice-cold, stomach-churning toxicity, leaching through cadavers. Lo-fi chainsaw guitars, indecipherable Hades-dwelling vocals and hammering percussion all feature on "Black Curse Upheld" and "All Uproarious Darkness", and blasting, basement riffs plow into grinding, dissonant roils bringing (a) doom and (b) black metal on "Paradise Reconsecrated", "Throat of the Grey Watcher" and "Fathomless Wells of Ruin".
All Uproarious Darkness is a blitzkrieg of blasphemy, featuring abundant brutality with zero friendly melodies. You can ingest the contents of the EP as something crude and malignant, and you'll be well sated by blasts of subterranean slaughter, but Vasaeleth doesn't just batter away gratuitously with a violent barrage of blackened death metal--at least, not solely.
If you're inclined to dig deeper, you'll recognize that it takes a great deal of skill to craft tunes that carve into your being like these do. Through the album's obnoxious riffing and mind-obliterating drumming, Vasaeleth evokes a hellish atmosphere, all oozing and creeping with menace and misdeeds, but All Uproarious Darkness conjures real-world horrors as much as any extramundane terrors. Not to cast aspersions on Antinom’s or OA's characters, but Vasaeleth sounds exactly like the type of villainous cabal that would happily commit grievous atrocities in the here and now -- although the EP promises plenty of post-death punishment, too.
Obviously, it's that muddy mix of malevolence and annihilation that fans seek out in cavernous death metal. Technical wonderment is all well and good, and plenty of bands thrill with the fretboard frills, but the 19 minutes of All Uproarious Darkness contains equal parts unpurified hostility and unprocessed cold-bloodedness. It's the perfect representation of the underbelly of the Earth vomiting the grotesque into the face of modernity; and really, what could be better than that?
The relationship between caves and the celestial is seen time and again in early history--as many artworks on cave walls testify. Even now, as we unpack the mysteries of the cosmos, the darkness overhead offers the prospect of immeasurable horrors just waiting to be discovered, or awakened.
Death metal duo Bölzer is a perfect example of a band able to draw from the ice-cold vacuum of space and channel that into the caverns of unnerving death metal; in turn, mirroring the way our eternal questions about our own existence are overshadowed by the fear of discovering just how infinitesimal we are in the greater cosmic game.
Bölzer is based in Zurich, Switzerland, although guitarist and vocalist KzR (Okoi Thierry Jones) formerly played in New Zealand-based black and death metal band Aphelon in the early to mid '00s (which also featured current Witchrist and Diocletian drummer, C Sinclair). If the Elder Gods have their way, Bölzer is set to be one of death metal's most formidable and fascinating bands, and its Roman Acupuncture demo certainly got a buzz brewing in 2012 with its mix of hypothermic black metal and rusty-bladed surgical death metal. The three songs on that demo brought the band well-deserved attention from the underground, but Bölzer's latest release, the Aura EP, is simply one of 2013's best death metal releases, full-stop.
Aura's three tracks, "C.M.E", "Entranced by the Wolfshook", and 11-minute giant "The Great Unifier", bring plenty of portentous cosmic clout, with an avant-garde accent writhing around in passages. They're the kind of tunes that could only be cooked up in the deepest caverns of the mind, with doom and plenty of low-end grimness drawing the shades on a fittingly thick and sinister atmosphere. KzR's riffs alternate between tight and frenetic twists, with glacial and grimy churns featuring too. Dissonance, ceaseless aggression from drummer HzR, and plenty of ill-omens reign throughout Aura, and "The Great Unifier"'s tremolo-heavy complexity (and intensity) produces something akin to Celtic Frost ripped inside out and shoved down the throat of Deathspell Omega, while Portal looks on, cackling with glee.
That might seem like an unnecessarily violent representation of Bolzer's sound, but while the EP is mystical and metaphysical, it's also 100 percent murderous -- born in some subterranean oubliette, where extremely dark thoughts are projected towards the stars. A fair portion of the barbarity comes from KzR's vocals. He dispenses the guttural growls very well, but the cleaner baying and wolf-like howls throughout the EP add even more chilling depths to what is a unique sound for Bölzer. Certainly, the band taps into something primeval on Aura, with a sound that gets under the skin as much as it impresses. It's often said that the death metal underground is filled with bands unwilling to take too many risks, adhering to a few tried and true tropes. However, Bölzer proves it’s entirely possible to make music that retains death metal's fundamental cavernous peril, whilst still reaching upwards for that aforementioned pitch-black celestial menace.
Much like New Zealand-based Ulcerate, Bölzer is bitterly cold. However, as with Ulcerate, that very inhospitableness is extremely appealing because it perfectly represents the antipathy we all feel towards the world at times. Admittedly, some of us may feel more misanthropic than others, but one thing is for certain, Bölzer's expressions of animosity and the pleasures it takes in ungodliness are searingly honest. It's not often you'll find death metal that comes with such transcendental weight (although, perhaps, enrapturing mass might be a better description of Bölzer's potential). Either way, the band astounds on Aura. That the EP exists at all confirms the link between the cruel caverns and the intimidating cosmos is a strong as ever.