With a name like Abhorrent Expanse and album art full of both human and demonic skulls, one might feel pretty safe judging this book by its cover. The only thing left to determine is which niche of death metal this group falls into. But while death metal might be at least a part of Abhorrent Expanse‘s sound, they are so much more. This Minneapolis quartet (guitarists Luke Polipnick and Erik Fratzke, bassist Brian Courage and drummer Tim Glenn) combines the aforementioned death metal with heaps of free improv, noise and drone, creating a unique sound on Gateways to Resplendence, out now via Amalgam Music and Lurker Bias.

The album starts with a short drone-and-drums introduction, “Cloak of Ancients,” and then dives into “Annihilation Operators.” The ominous song title is well chosen for the cavernous death metal attack that follows. Abhorrent Expanse starts from a foundation of obscurantist death metal in the vein of Portal, early Incantation, and Infernal Coil, and adds in elements of noise and drone to great effect. The song rages like an infinite whirlwind, both immediately brutal and strangely atmospheric. Midway through, the assault drops out for a clean guitar break, though it is more in the scratching-at-the-strings vein of Derek Bailey than anything conventionally metal, and then the attack resumes.

As a song, “Annihilation Operators” is a success, but if this was the extent of the group’s sound, they would wear out their welcome quickly. Luckily, Abhorrent Expanse has more to offer. They pair seemingly incompatible musical concepts again on “Empirical Languages” and “Frost Suffocation.” The former features dueling clean guitars à la Joe Morris, with a nice bowed bass interlude in the latter half of the tune. The latter piece moves from slow doom to blast beats, both tempos haunted by the ghost of Sonny Sharrock. Then the music shifts to an abstract take on noir ambience. The guitar amps up again for more blackened improv. At this point, the group has definitely established the unpredictability of their sound.

There is no clear or single path through the rest of the record. The title track plays like cut-up versions of acoustic black metal jams. “Invasive Insectoid Horror Thoughts” leans more towards the electro-acoustic, utterly abstract yet completely creepy. “Against the Churning Void, Apparitions of a Lost and Glorious Starscape” nods to Sunn O))), but if that duo embarked on a weird collaboration with unknown artists.

Clocking in at almost fifteen minutes and with a title worthy of Finnish legends Demilich, “Arcturian Nano Diamonds from the Tranquil Abyss” brings the album to a close. It begins with a black metal guitar line in search of a blast beat but finding abstract doom instead. The riffs adjust for a while, but the desolate guitar line returns. Instead of blast beats, noise swells up underneath, and the guitar fractures once again like Sonny Sharrock at his most abrasive. The music creates more unsettling  atmospherics than most metal bands can muster. One can feel the alien winds blowing through starlit canyons on unknown planets. Metal, noise, improv, and psychedelia all meet in the middle, with each aspect contributing into a sum greater than its individual parts. All of this climaxes just shy of the ten-minute mark, and then slowly dissolves into burning, droning embers. The piece feels endless, like we are just hearing a snippet of something infinite that our puny minds can’t comprehend.

The truly stunning thing about Abhorrent Expanse‘s music is that it’s entirely improvised — riffs, blast beats and all. This album was the result of a single day’s work in the studio. There’s much talk of jazz influence in metal circles today, but actually hearing it in the music is rare. Abhorrent Expanse demonstrates a deep knowledge of free jazz and any number of avant-garde niches. The result is an expansive and gloriously unpredictable record. They seem to invoke the incomprehensible elements of cosmic horror that so many extreme metal acts point to as inspiration. Gateways to Resplendence demands deep exploration from the listener, but its atmosphere warns them away. It is a journey open only to those who dare. 

Todd Manning

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