Review Summary: The Mothership returns
Anyone with even a passing interest in death metal must occasionally contemplate the name of the genre. Perhaps it arose from some accidental journalistic flourish that stuck (there’s a book about it somewhere). But the name makes sense, for death metal strives to transcend human limitations and emotions. It is distinguishable from the other strains of extreme metal not only in regard to its technical parameters, but also in regard to its emotional palette (or lack thereof).
A dorm room buddy gave me a tape of “DOOM METAL” in Fall of ’95 or Spring ‘96. I used a component burner to make a C.D. of it, and to this day it pairs surprisingly well with a glass of wine. The traditional European “gothic” variety of doom, e.g. early Tiamat, Amorphis, The Gathering circa Always, Katatonia, and the British variants Anathema and My Dying Bride, is clearly sentimental music, and contains fleeting moments of hope and passion-- sure, things are dying, the leaves are falling off the trees, the bloom has fallen off the rose. But life continues. There may even be a hint of tension-- existential awareness that the worst is yet to come. This style can be contrasted with American Doom (St. Vitus, Pentagram, and the Swedish variant, Candlemass), which is no more and no less than a downbeat strain of rock & roll.
The first black metal album I picked up was Cruelty and the Beast in ‘99. It was Fall, and that album, with its papery production and hellish shrieks, is a perfect Fall album. Naturally I came to think that black metal was “Fall music”. It was over a decade later when I finally had a black metal breakthrough-- this time it was Burzum’s re-recording From the Depths of Darkness. In a subsequent fit of passion and curiosity, I lay in a comatose trance through a sequence of early Darkthrone albums. I realized that true, “raw” black metal was meant for the darkest nights of winter, when no amount of extra logs on the fire or long underwear can exorcise the bone-numbing chill. Black metal is for after the last things have died. Devoid of hope, like a lost spirit who exists only to exact vengeance, black metal embodies cold malice, bitterness, and envy for the living. Since the music itself is so often repetitive and produced like dogsh*t, it pairs well with anything that takes your pain away, like laudanum.
Death metal is distinguishable from the aforementioned musical genres (not to mention the often brainless splatter-Art of grindcore) specifically because it is utterly devoid of nostalgia, hope, fear, and generally doesn’t even demonstrate hatred. Instead, it embodies music as pure aural sculpture, and strives to transcend human limitations and emotions. No one has ever poured a glass of wine, dropped the needle on a Morbid Angel album, and curled up in a cozy armchair to get sentimental. The best environment for death metal is a steel shed with a beat-up chair or mat on the floor-- but anywhere dark and alone will do. It doesn’t know liquors for emotional sensitivity-- it pairs best with ketamine and a bong.
Operating at the apex of death metal effectiveness since 1993’s Ungentle Exhumation demo and never slipping below brilliant, Cryptopsy again brings us the finest in modern vibratory sculpture-in-motion with the Tome of Suffering.
The band is a four-piece again as on Once Was Not, when guitarist Alex Auburn was in the hot seat. Here, the riffs are crafted by Chris Donaldson, who also handled production on the last two albums and this E.P. (now recording out of The Grid studio). Like Auburn, Donaldson shows that he has what it takes to operate in the very highest echelon of death metal. Donaldson’s riffs plow like bulldozers. One of the great misconceptions about Cryptopsy is that they are “too technical” or that they are not riff-oriented so much as a walking blastfest. But if you take the time to get to know the albums, these guys consistently put out some of the best riffs in metal, usually on par with the output of Vogg from Decapitated and even threatening to come within firing range of the great Corpse.
With only a maze of synchronized noise, a band risks being an extreme metal Mr. Bungle-- bad trip material if ever there was any. Songs and riffs matter, and a charismatic vocalist goes a long way towards tying it all together. Matt McGachy’s vocals can momentarily approximate hardcore in a way reminiscent of Mike DiSalvo, without being derivative. But without warning or missing a drop of spit, they veer back into more hysterical and indecipherable Lord Worm territory-- consider the run from about 2:00 to 2:30 on “The Knife, The Head, and What Remains”. As other commentators have noticed, McGachy joins the ranks of true death metal heavyweights on this E.P. No kidding, he is probably one of the best vocalists in extreme metal right now, which is something I didn't really see coming.
Of course, a musical genre gives birth to Art at the junction of song-writing and inventive technical displays. Brutal music depends in part on the element of surprise for its impact. I mean in no way anything related to the concept of "shock rock”. The surprise is in the sense that artful rhythms and interesting sounds are more likely to draw the listener in, and thus make him that much more vulnerable to being ripped in half by a punishing breakdown or blitzkreig solo. Olivier Pinard’s bass guitar on this E.P. is so sick it is literally nauseating-- I refer you to the kick-in-the-gut bass at the endpoint of the aforementioned 2:00 to 2:30 slice of “The Knife…”
“Halothane Glow” shreds itself into our world with an awesome guitar intro, giving way to a rusty bass guitar solo that bursts to the fore at the 40 second mark. A jam then commences, which after the two minute mark is accented with melodic guitar notes, and then coming to embody the most perfect distillation of the new line-up’s chemistry thus far put to wax. The end of the song gives out to eerie sound effects and a moment to breathe before “Framed By Blood”.
The first two minutes of “Framed…” are a surprisingly melodic and cathartic jam-- perhaps eclipsing the interplay on “Glow”-- followed by technical drumming and a sweet guitar solo that disappears all too soon like a bittersweet love affair. The first chapter of the Tome goes out on an epic high, the only shame being that it is over so soon.
For a lot of folks, the fireworks come courtesy of the legendary Flo Mounier’s drumming. Line-up changes? No problem. Cryptopsy is an alien god that uses human puppets to do its bidding, Flo Mounier being chief among these minions. And for the love of God, if Flo is on it, it is Cryptopsy, and if it is Cryptopsy it is good. There are not many times when I get caught up with authorial intent-- call me egotistical and self-absorbed-- but this is a case where you MUST respect the artist's vision. Cryptopsy has never pandered to the mainstream. To say The Unspoken King was a stab at mainstream acceptance is a statement so devoid of grounding in reality, so dizzyingly absurd, that it makes my head swim.
A historical footnote. It has been said that Suffocation invented “slam” death metal, but Cryptopsy arguably invented two styles that would be standard in the 21st century. The fact is that back in 1994, Cryptopsy was making what could be called deathcore on their debut album Blasphemy Made Flesh, which came replete with drilling drums and breakdowns that sounded like the mothership revving its antigravity engines.
Then, on 2008’s The Unspoken King, Cryptopsy made a sprawling prog-death conceptual epic that featured several bars of Mike Patton -esque rock singing. A few years later we would see a veritable ocean of young “djent” prog- and tech-metal bands arise, all busy with keyboards and cringe-worthy “clean singing”. Even when Cryptopsy doesn’t invent new musical genres it predicts them, and every album-- no, really-- every album-- by this band is state-of-the-art and a must own. If you are a punk kid just learning to inhale, you will do well to seek out the Grand Masters of yore and imprint them on your brain.