When you name your band Ghoulgotha, you might think it’s a joke. I mean, it’s kind of hard to take seriously. Not to rag on this San Diego death/doom metal outfit’s choice of name, but, I have to admit, I had a minor case of the giggles when I heard of them. It’s a signifier of a band that wants to be taken seriously, but have a playful horror-esque feel at the same time. In a way, this double-feeling kind of backfires and works against the group. The expectation that the moniker sets up is one of a kind of over-the-top Fangoria magazine reader’s delight with the tongue firmly planted in cheek. However, the music is pretty dead serious, in a stoner kind of way. If you took the sludginess of Black Sabbath and inserted interspersed moments of speed demon riffage, you would have this band – which doesn’t sound like a joke. But, then again, there is a touch of the pretentious in some of the song titles: “Prophetic Oration of Self”, “Citadel of Heathen Flesh”, “Gazing Into Melted Night”, etc. At first glance, you’d think that this is, indeed, a group just messing around, which the music, alas, appears to bare out. So say what you will. The Deathmass Cloak probably wins the award for the most overwrought, if not simultaneously eye-winking, metal release of the year.
If that sort of sounds like I don’t know how to make heads or tails of this album, well, you would be right. To these ears, a lot of the songs sound the same. “Prophetic Oration of Self” has all of those herky-jerky stops and starts that characterizes early Rush, but just played as though the outfit is trudging through the muck and mire of some Viking battlefield. Interesting, but it goes on for seven minutes. The song could use a bit of a trim. The beat picks up a bit on the following “Arteries Unblessed”, before devolving into riffs that would be best suited towards a passing around of the bong pipe. And, again, there are those stop-start sections, which would be considered innovative around, say, 1975, when Rush did it on “By-Tor and the Snow Dog”, but now feel absolutely reductive. Granted, an acoustic guitar bit comes in to save the day, but it might be a case of too little, too late. Oh well, at least the guitar sound on the remainder of the track sounds neat: as though someone took a razor blade to the amplifiers and blew things out. However, this is all the mid-point of things. If you go back to the start, things begin on rather dicey ground. “Solar Awakening” is all guitar feedback and peels against the most soft-rock sounding of keyboard lines. The effect is rather cheap and chintzy. What were these guys thinking?
“A Neck for Nameless Noose”, though, is stimulating in that it sounds vaguely Sleep-like with some harsh and quicksilver rhythms just to shake things up. And “Cartilage Imperfect” is somewhat technical in nature in that it slips all around the place, leaving the listener unsure what’s around the corner. However, some sustained chords enter the picture, you know, just to make things real heavy, and it all seems like child’s play. But that’s not the most overt sin the song makes: it actually stops about mid-way through for some simplistic and low-in-the-mix bass plucking. It’s a real WTF? moment. There’s an amateurness that shines through on this cut, and it takes what might have been an interesting song and basically throws it in the garage. It’s as though it were the product of a songwriting session and the band merely kept all of the first things that came into their minds and went with it. It’s like, what is going on here? I don’t know much about these guys, but it reminds me of a metal band that I actually auditioned for in high school as a vocalist and lyric writer, but quickly bailed upon after just one session with the group once I realized that the other members’ work ethic wasn’t really up to snuff. (Read: they were more interested in noodling around, and not getting serious and writing songs that others would enjoy.) The same sort of thing is going on here: the sound of a few people just entertaining themselves without regard to what it takes to satisfy an audience.
If anything, The Deathmass Cloak is intriguing, as some metal albums are, when you turn your mind off and simply enjoy it for what it is. However, when you actually sit down and try to parse the material, that the flaws become evident. And, really, it comes down to the fact that doom and death metal don’t seem to mix very well. You get the insanely fast guitar riffage before things slow down to a virtual crawl. Given the herky-jerky nature of much of the stuff to be found here, you can practically try setting your watch to it. And given the propensity to be as mired in the muck as possible, there are stretches of the record that seem rather boring. There’s a propensity towards repetitive riffs, which is probably to make the album feel memorable by drilling things into your skull, but there’s not a great deal that’s overtly tremendous. And when the group tries to do something epic, such as on the final 11-minute cut “Levitate Within the Curse”, they meander. Ghoulgotha simply doesn’t really know how to tie things together. All in all, The Deathmass Cloak‘s biggest sin is that it is directionless. If you were to throw a little bit of speed metal in with some sludge rock riffage without any sort of semblance towards order, you would have this album. So, I dunno folks. If you’re undiscriminating, you might find something that tickles your fancy here. However, those who like quality in their music will be left wanting. It’s telling that the press materials call this a “weird and winding death metal album destined to satisfy even the harshest critics”, as though publicity knew what was going to be lobbed at this and were attempting a preemptive strike. In any event, the only joke that The Deathmass Cloak plays, unfortunately, is on the listener. Maybe the silly name is apt after all.