Samuel Beckett‘s novel Murphy opens with the sentence “The sun shone, having no alternative, on the nothing new.” A 10-word masterpiece of pessimism, it also sums up the attitude with which it’s necessary to approach a lot of metal albums. Fans give their attention to new releases, and new bands, not in the hope of hearing something they’ve never heard before, but in the hope that whatever’s being done will be done well. In the case of Pomona, California’s Cranial Engorgement, and their debut album Horrific Existence (get it from Amazon), that optimism is rewarded.
The album kicks off with a short instrumental that blends sampled horror movie dialogue—from the early-2000s remake of Dawn of the Dead—with a grandiose-ish riff that’s more in the spirit of beatdown hardcore than death metal; a band like Sick Of It All, Breakdown or Judge could easily have written the exact same riff. (The hardcore influence reappears in the bass intro to the fourth track, “Mongoloid Massacre.”)
Cranial Engorgement are stylistic magpies, plucking from here, there and everywhere. Like Immolation and Incantation, they shift back and forth between fast death metal riffs like wheels spinning in mud, and crawling doom sections. Similarly, guitarist/vocalist Noah Lopez switches between guttural growls and totally incomprehensible, almost digestive noises that may make the listener’s throat hurt in sympathy. Bassist Tyler Contreras occasionally adds hoarse, almost black metal-ish croaks that sound like the noise a six-foot-tall crow might make. (John Gallagher of Dying Fetus makes a shouty guest appearance on the song “Molded by Cruelty.”)
“I am God” is a good example of the band’s everything-into-the-bucket approach to songwriting. It includes a slow doom intro, a Cannibal Corpse-ish riff, some squealing pinch harmonics, some jackhammering blast beat sections, a Deicide-simple chorus, and multiple breakdown sections guaranteed to send the pit into a frenzy.
Because they’re just a trio, Cranial Engorgement‘s music has an agility that two-guitar death metal bands can’t match. Drummer John Kraken is a crucial element—he’s got a loose, almost jazzy sense of time. Even his most blasting parts never sound programmed or locked to a grid. On “Dawn of the Final Day,” he speeds up and slows down from intro to first verse and back, but the transition is smooth as silk, and feels completely human. He also tosses in militaristic little snare fills that provide bounce and a jolt of energy.
They’ve got a more exploratory side, too—the instrumental “In Loving Memory” is a drumless guitar-bass duo, with extra reverb, that’s like music for a jazz fusion funeral mass. It leads directly into the title track, which begins with a moody intro but quickly becomes one of the heaviest songs on the album. So while Cranial Engorgement appear at first to be just one more brutal death metal band, securely nestled within the traditions of that subgenre, their ability to combine familiar elements in new ways allows them to display their individuality in a non-showy manner that will reward the attention of listeners with a grounding in the music.