Incantation are one of American death metal’s greatest bands, and that’s almost entirely due to the single-minded brilliance of guitarist John McEntee, their only remaining founding member. Over the last 25 years, upwards of a dozen guitarists, bassists and drummers have passed through the ranks, whether they played on an album or two or were just live fill-ins. (There’s a famous quote from Mark E. Smith of British postpunk legends The Fall about his philosophy on member changes: “If it’s me and your granny on bongos, it’s The Fall.” Well, if it’s John McEntee and your granny on bongos, it’s Incantation.) To date, they’ve released eight studio albums (nine when you count Upon the Throne of Apocalypse, a rough-mix version of 1994’s Mortal Throne of Nazarene with the tracks in reverse order), two live albums (one real, one fake), and a bunch of singles, EPs, splits, and compilation tracks. Their ninth or tenth album, Dirge of Elysium, is out now, and it’s as good as anything they’ve ever done. (Buy it from Amazon.)

What’s funny, given the near-constant upheaval in the ranks (and, to be fair, it’s not as extreme as it may seem—Kyle Severn has been the drummer for most of the band’s lifespan, from 1994 to 1998, 2000 to 2007, and from 2009 to the present), is that Incantation are one of the great exemplars of what critic Hank Shteamer calls “death metal conservatism.” He wrote an essay on this subject for Burning Ambulance issue 7 (buy it here), combining four lengthy blog posts into a detailed analysis of the work of Cannibal Corpse, Immolation, Obituary and Suffocation, four bands that have succeeded, artistically and commercially, by giving fans what they want. Each of these bands pioneered a style when death metal was still carving out its sonic territory, and they’ve continued to refine that core sound on album after album, without ever going through an “experimental” phase or forgetting what they’re good at. Incantation deserves to be ranked right alongside those other bands, not only because of the consistency of their output, but because of its consistently high quality. There are no bad Incantation albums, but there are some amazing ones. Dirge of Elysium fits in the latter category.

The key to the Incantation sound is their blend of death metal and doom. A lot of death metal bands occasionally slow down, in order to crank the energy level that much higher when they go back to blasting, but McEntee and company are masters of a feedback-soaked, crawling rhythm that’s been part of their sound since their debut album, 1992’s Onward to Golgotha; on “Blasphemous Creation,” for example, they’ve been barreling along for a minute and a half or so when they launch into a killer Slayer-style riff, and/but after only about 10 seconds of that, they drop into first gear for two full minutes of creeping ultra-heaviness played at the speed of Cop-era Swans, including a long stretch of fuzzed-out lead bass. Throughout the album, and the ones that would follow, they’d pull this trick again and again, juxtaposing savage headbang-inspiring passages with morose, time-distorting interludes of pure crushing doom. They also occasionally indulged a taste for epics, beginning with their third album, 1998’s astonishing Diabolical Conquest. That record ended with “Unto Infinite Twilight/Majesty of Infernal Damnation,” a nearly 17-minute piece that shifts back and forth between doom and death again and again, until the listener is left pummeled into a kind of ecstatic submission. They pulled the same trick on 2012’s Vanquish in Vengeance, closing the album with the 11-minute stomper “Legion of Dis.”

Dirges of Elysium is one of Incantation‘s doomiest albums. It opens with the title track, which is a two-minute instrumental, McEntee’s riffs and Chuck Sherwood‘s astonishingly rich and full bass sound rolling over each other as Severn accentuates what they’re doing and raises the tension with impeccably placed rolls and cymbal crashes. When the first proper song, “Debauchery,” kicks in, it’s blazing death metal, adorned with squealing guitar solos and more intricate, rumbling bass work, but even here the riffs slow down and speed up like a “bullet time” special effect. The “single,” “Carrion Prophecy,” is built around a riff like a bulldozer rolling down a road paved with skulls. The album’s first half concludes with “From a Glaciate Womb,” a nearly eight-minute doom track that begins with two guitars riffing in what would be harmony if it didn’t sound like McEntee was detuning them both as he played. None of the next four songs—”Portal Consecration,” “Charnel Grounds,” “Impalement of Divinity” and “Dominant Ethos”—are longer than 3:45, and “Charnel Grounds,” despite running only 2:17, manages to find room for a bass solo.

And like its predecessor, Dirges of Elysium ends with a death march, this time the 16:23 “Elysium (Eternity is Nigh).” It lurches along with torturous slowness, an eight-note riff disintegrating, over and over, into a sustained, distorted chord as McEntee growls like a grizzly and Severn pounds out a rhythm that could have driven Viking-era oarsmen. At the seven-minute mark, a slight gear change takes place; the tempo rises all the way up to Black Sabbath-circa-1972 speed (think “Lord of This World” or “Wheels of Confusion”). At the nine-minute mark, Severn’s drumming becomes as mechanistic as Godflesh‘s machine, and another riff briefly takes over, one recalling mid ’80s Metallica, as beneath McEntee’s relentless grind, Sherwood’s bass is a wall of black fuzz. In the piece’s final minutes, though, something really fascinating happens. After an interlude of dissonant guitar harmonics hanging in the air like a poison gas cloud, Severn kicks things back into gear with a tom-heavy, shockingly loose (for death metal) rhythm recalling Sabbath’s “Children of the Grave,” as McEntee and Sherwood crank up one last awesome galloping riff…and then the piece is over, dissolving into feedback and the hiss of a dying cymbal crash. It’s a perfect ending to one of the strongest albums ever by one of death metal’s most individualistic, even visionary bands.

Phil Freeman

Stream “Carrion Prophecy”:

Buy Dirges of Elysium from Amazon

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