Ten years ago or so, the technical death metal label of the moment was Pennsylvania’s Willowtip Records, who put out brilliant albums by Arsis, Illogicist, Malignancy, Neuraxis, and Spawn of Possession, as well as Necrophagist‘s breathtaking debut, Onset of Putrefaction. In the years since, the genre has continued to expand (while remaining an extremely limited-audience phenomenon, of course), and various acts have emerged on various imprints, but nobody’s really tried to dominate the genre in that way since. Well, if their activity over the last few years is any indication, Unique Leader Records, from California, are making a serious play for the underground death metal throne.

Internal Suffering, originally from Colombia but now based in Madrid, are celebrating their 20th anniversary with the release of their upcoming fifth album, Cyclonic Void of Power (pre-order it from Amazon). What sets them apart, lyrically, is their obsession with the Cthulhu mythos as delineated in the short stories of H.P. Lovecraft—their songs are filled with references to the Elder Gods and the imminent destruction of mankind by implacable beings from beyond. Of course, this is death metal, so you’ll only know that if you read the lyrics; it all just sounds like guttural roaring and growling. It’s impossible to even know if frontman Fabio Marin—one of two founding members, along with bassist Andrés Garcia—is singing in English or Spanish. (Though the title of the last track, “Orbitas Ancestrales de Poder,” could be a hint.) He’s got a good voice, by death metal standards, somewhere between Cannibal Corpse‘s George “Corpsegrinder” Fisher and Deicide‘s Glen Benton, his ability to shift between a low gurgling roar and a blast-furnace like exhale-bellow particularly indebted to the latter man. But as always with death metal, the music is the point. Guitarist Diego Alonso whips up a minor tornado of riffs and high-speed zipping squeals, shifting seamlessly from low-end rumbles to mid-range table-saw sounds as Garcia and drummer Wilson Henao keep the music grounded and drive it forward, respectively. He doesn’t solo often; when he does, it’s a quick squiggling ejaculation, over almost as soon as it begins.

Omnihility, from Eugene, Oregon, released their third album, Dominion of Misery, in February. (Get it from Amazon.) It kicks off with a horror-movie intro, performed by guest keyboardist Nick Superchi, aka OldNick of Ceremonial Castings, but their actual songs have none of that moody, haunted vibe. They’re blindingly fast, the machine-gun kick drum and jackhammer snare of Steve Crum surprisingly loud in the mix; guitarist Dan Rabago combines inhuman riffing and squealing solos, but bassist Isamu Sato (formerly of Yob) has to struggle to make his presence felt—he’s so locked in with Rabago, you just have to take it on faith that there is a bass at all. He’s not exactly demanding a place in the spotlight the way, say, Linus Klausenitzer of Obscura would. Sato labors in service of the riff. Vocalist John Kurzejeski has an authoritative bark, but never screams or does anything else to try and take over the song the way vocalists in more conventional rock bands do. He’s delivering lyrics because they’re a requirement (and with titles like “Immaculate Deception,” “Reflections in Blood,” and “Dead Eden,” it’s unlikely that they’re worthy of investigation), so why shouldn’t he just sink into the middle of the barrage? The album’s ultimate value is in its relentless fury—if you’re in the mood to be battered around for 40 minutes or so, Omnihility are here for you.

The second album by Russia’s Katalepsy (that’s them in the photo above), Gravenous Hour, came out last week. (Get it from Amazon.) Despite being every bit as mechanistic and aggressive as the Omnihility and Internal Suffering albums, it has a slightly more organic feel. Drummer Evgeny Novikov sounds like he’s playing an actual kit—except for the triggered kick drums, which erupt faster than any human foot could ever strike—and guitarists Anton Garasiev and Dmitry (no last name) have a wide variety of approaches at their command, including head-down hardcore-style riffing, intricate progressive metal gyrations, and carefully layered harmonics. Whoever’s playing the solos is capable of shifting seamlessly from almost psychedelic wah-wah screams to blipping video-game-esque sound effects, too, which is always cool. And bassist Anatoly Shishilov is prominent in the mix, frequently throwing in little fretless-sounding ornamental phrases that take the music in the jazz-fusion direction heard on classic 1990s albums by Atheist, Death, Pestilence, et al., as well as newer efforts by Obscura, Job For a Cowboy, and others. Of the three bands reviewed here, Katalepsy are the most satisfying by far—their combination of floor-punching aggression and fluid melodic extrapolation is death metal at its best. If they had a better vocalist, they’d be a top-tier act, but Igor Filimontsev is one more thick-necked bellower. Ultimately, it’s a shame that a genre that allows for so much exploration on the instrumental side keeps its vocalists on such a short leash, but it’s unlikely to change anytime soon.

Death metal is always going to be an acquired taste, and technical death metal’s appeal is even narrower. Unique Leader are to be commended for supporting such a resolutely unmarketable genre, especially if their releases continue to be of this quality.

Phil Freeman

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