Photo: Season of Mist

Not a Second of Horrendous’ ‘Ontological Mysterium’ Sounds Human

Horrendous have returned refreshed and once again intent on twisting death metal into new forms on their daring LP, Ontological Mysterium.

Ontological Mysterium
Season of Mist
18 August 2023

From the primordial HM-2 ooze of The Chills in 2012 to the exuberant solar flares of prog-death modern classic Anareta (2015), by way of the vast wormhole opened by 2014’s Ecdysis, Horrendous have had the kind of dazzling evolutionary charge not quite seen since the glory days of Chuck Schuldiner’s Death, who had gone from Scream Bloody Gore’s raw barbarity to Human’s brain-obliterating highbrow technicality in the space of five years. 

Idol (2018), however, saw Horrendous—Damian Herring (guitars/vocals), Matt Knox (guitars/vocals), Jamie Knox (drums), and Alex Kulick (who joined on bass in 2016)—plateau creatively in comparison to the progressive stylistic strides they had made previously. So much so that, in hindsight, the album equaled a consolidation of what worked on its immediate predecessor. With Idol, Horrendous had found their niche, and the complex aspects of the sound remained paramount. Meanwhile, melody was explored in a more rounded manner without sacrificing the breathtaking aggression and infectious musical energy that had become the talented band’s trademark up to then.

A five-year gap between releases—the longest yet for the band after firing off four records in quick succession between 2012 and 2018—has done wonders. Horrendous have returned refreshed and once again intent on twisting death metal into new forms on their daring LP, Ontological Mysterium.

A prayer (presumably to the cosmo) for wisdom and resolve, “The Blaze” beckons the listener with its creepy whispered vocals and sparse, almost early Katatonia-esque doom/death arrangement. This track, while not indicative of the album as a whole, showcases a more controlled, yet still wildly adventurous, and dare we say, mature, version of Horrendous.

“Chrysopoeia (The Archaeology of Dawn)”, which immediately follows, is along the past lines of Horrendous’ dexterous, luminous melodic death metal. With off-beat syncopations powering through various transitions of knotted riffs, popping, Tool-like basslines, and duel vocals that shift from acrid screams to gothic cleans and strange spoken words, Horrendous’ labyrinthine approach to compositions is highly evident. The solos are progressive rock in their phrasing and work wonderfully (not just here but throughout the record), but the aforementioned odd-ball clean vocals may be a sticking point for some death metalheads. However, progressive music should ruffle feathers, and where would we be if it didn’t?

There’s a lot of built-fall-charge-crash to the atypical song-craft of Ontological Mysterium. “Neon Leviathan” and the instrumental “Aurora Neoterica” are an unrelenting death metal/thrash/prog fusion where bizarre arrangements, countless tempo shifts, and tons of synapses-splitting riffs and rhythms collide. Both tracks rattle with high levels of technicality, the latter even moving into free jazz during its less extreme passages. 

Overall, however, the intensity of these futuristic songs is not diminished by the vibrancy of the prog-metal flourishes (alien psychedelia and triumphal leads/solos), as speed remains a huge aspect of Horrendous’ sound; Jamie Knox’s drumming is almost constantly aimed starbound. But such speed and rhythmic force are beautifully tempered by some truly enveloping passages when the band decrease the tempo and allow counterpoint playing to shine, a dedication to ensuring this music, while drawn from individual talents, does not become definable by the sum of its parts.

Ontological Mysterium flows holistically as one continuous piece. Taking songs out of context seems to do more harm than good. Even talking about individual moments feels like a strange thing to do even though there are standout sections to be stunned by along this journey, such as the classic metal main riff of “Preterition Hymn” or the twisting, violent, esoteric “Cult of Shaad’oah”, described in heady fashion by Horrendous as “a symbolic quest through the wastes of doubt and slumbering awareness. Its nameless hero ascends from the underworld to the heights of the gods, daring to penetrate the outer reaches of the universe itself and become master of all.” Hell, the coruscating riffs of closer “The Death Knell Ringeth” sound like Pantera had hailed from Mars rather than Texas.

It’s fair to say that not a second of this record sounds human. But that’s what all great technical/progressive death metal should hope to achieve: a sonic inhumanity outside the mere comprehensive of mortals. Music from a future age, planet, dimension. Ontological Mysterium leaves the listener questioning how this music is formed, how we’re to interpret it, and on a grander, more metaphysical level, whether we are even conscious of the truths of reality… what is reality, even? 

Ontological Mysterium is a resounding success for this fearless act whose approach to altering their craft leaves plenty of older (ailing) bands with years more of experience sounding tired and irrelevant. It’s truly an exciting time to be a member of Horrendous because from here on out, there are no artistic boundaries for these four musicians beyond the limits of their minds.

RATING 9 / 10