Being a death metal institution is a weird feeling, I imagine. On the one hand, you’re being rewarded for making the music you love, but on the other hand, nobody expects you to progress — indeed, change is unwelcome. There is not one Cannibal Corpse or Obituary fan who says, “I just wish they’d stretch themselves a little bit…” To make a decades-long career in death metal, you’ve got to figure out exactly what you’re good at early, build a style that showcases your strengths, and just do it, again and again, making an album every couple of years, until the end of time. Incantation, like Cannibal Corpse, Immolation, Obituary and Suffocation, are masters of death metal because they have mastered themselves; they know what their audience expects, and they give it to them because it’s what they would be doing anyway.
This is Incantation‘s 30th year of existence. Their first demo was released in 1990. Sect of Vile Divinities is their tenth album, the follow-up to 2017’s Profane Nexus. Since 2012’s Vanquish in Vengeance, the band’s lineup has been relatively steady, with founder John McEntee on guitars and vocals, Chuck Sherwood on bass, and Kyle Severn on drums. Only the lead guitar spot has been in flux. On Vanquish and 2014’s brilliant Dirges of Elysium, they had Alex Bouks; on Profane Nexus, Sonny Lombardozzi took over; and now, on Sect, they’ve brought in a goddamn kid — Luke Shively, who was born in 1992, the year Incantation‘s debut album, Onward to Golgotha, was released.
The key to their sound has always been their almost physically stunning heaviness. They shift seamlessly back and forth between galloping death metal and crawling-out-of-the-earth doom. Sometimes, they get epic, as on “Legion of Dis” from Vanquish in Vengeance (11:17), “Elysium (Eternity is Nigh)” from Dirges of Elysium (16:23), or “Unto Infinite Twilight/Majesty of Infernal Damnation” from 1998’s Diabolical Conquest (16:47). Other times, though, they’ll just write a really slow, punishing song that still manages to come in at a reasonable running time. They do that here with “Black Fathom’s Fire,” which starts out in high gear, with an almost High On Fire-esque drum avalanche but gradually slows down until they just slam on the brakes at the 90-second mark, letting Shively take a brief solo before a massive, Black Sabbath-y riff comes in. Shively unleashes brief bursts of guitar, but he does it in the background, as McEntee continues to roar out the lyrics like his throat is lined with gravel; in fact, the solos are treated with reverb until they sound like elements of a Seventies dub mix. The next song, “Ignis Fatuus,” is just as slow and heavy, though it’s only two and a half minutes long, punctuated by ominous drum rolls and eerie guitar harmonies.
Make no mistake, there are plenty of fast passages on Sect. They come out of the gate blasting on “Ritual Impurity (Seven of the Sky is One),” with some stunning sheet-metal guitar harmonies and thunderous drum work. The brilliantly titled “Entrails of the Hag Queen” charges forward like an out-of-control cement mixer, though it slows down eventually, and “Chant of Formless Dread” is a blast-beat-driven riff-storm with an absolutely unhinged guitar solo.
It’s almost foolish to rank Incantation albums. They’ve been doing their thing for 30 years; they’re absolute masters of their craft. They’ve never made a bad album, and some of them — Onward to Golgotha, Diabolical Conquest, Dirges of Elysium — are as good as death metal gets. Sect of Vile Divinities is one of their better releases, and while its still completely recognizable as their work, there are a few sonic surprises. Shively pulls his weight and then some. It’s as heavy and bludgeoning as any fan could want, and if it’s the first Incantation record you ever hear, it’ll make you want to hear the others. After three decades, they haven’t lost a step.