Review Summary: A monolith of an album that cements Ad Nauseam's place among metal's finest.
Six years ago, Ad Nauseam – an unheralded death metal band from Italy – debuted with an album that could have passed as the magnum opus of seasoned veterans. Though comparisons to Deathspell Omega and Gorguts found their way into just about every assessment of 2015’s Nihil Quam Vacuitas Ordinatum Est
, something nonetheless distinguished it from the droves of “disso-death” that have only become more common since. The band possessed a prodigious level of talent, which allowed them to shirk the “-worship” label and carve out a niche that had fiends for everything dissonant and technical imploring us to “watch this space”. Even in light of what we’d heard from Ad Nauseam until then, I doubt many will have expected something as simultaneously off-the-wall and technically-accomplished as their long-awaited sophomore album: Imperative Imperceptible Impulse
, or “III
”, for brevity’s sake.
Not to imply that III
is merely a sum of its influences, but the ancestral DNA of Deathspell Omega, Gorguts and Ulcerate does remain embedded within its musical genome. It’s difficult to hear the janky outro of “Inexorably Ousted Sente” and not be reminded of the more rhythmically obtuse parts of Deathspell Omega’s Fas – Ite, Maledicti, In Ignem Aeternum
. The liberal experimentation with texture and acoustics brings Gorguts’ Obscura
to mind, while their dedication to theme and variation echoes the song-writing approach of Ulcerate. However, while these sources of inspiration often conjured soundscapes of wickedness, academic rigour and the apocalypse, respectively, Ad Nauseam impart an atmosphere of genuine, unbridled madness and offer very little reprieve in doing so.
It’s been stated ad nauseam
is far from a casual listen, as it delights in depriving us of the consonant, resolute melodies and steady rhythms that we’ve been conditioned from birth to crave. Even during its sparsest moments, III
is still unnervingly angular, peppered with both extended technique and sounds of unmusical origins – courtesy of the band’s DIY approach to their own hardware, with maybe a subtle appreciation for musique concrète. It’s a surprise to note the sheer amount of down-time here, with every song containing multi-minute-long stretches to mitigate fatigue (I’m presuming), yet nowhere do they come off as mere intermissions, or as devices just to intensify the recognisably metal segments. Andrea S.’s fusion-tinged brush(?) drumming that trickles in as the final track, “Human Interface to No God”, peters out, feels far too deliberate to be intended as an accent. Each of these moments are as integral to the album’s structure and progression as its highest-octane riffs.
Mercifully, for all the reasons you could call III
a “demanding listen”, its aural abrasiveness is an insignificant, if worth mentioning factor. The album’s generous dynamic range and butter-smooth, natural tones are best exhibited during its quieter moments, sure, but still apparent from the opening measures of “Sub Specie Aeternitatis” right through to the aforementioned closer. Each guitar, as well as the bass, retains that unprocessed crunch of a mic-to-amp recording, with every minor variance in their performances – from laboured bends to momentary glints of feedback – preserved as if taken straight from a live set. The crisp yet sonorous drumming allows one to picture themselves as being in the same room as the band themselves, revelling in admiration for their instrumental chops in the absence of studio trickery. Rather than having you endure a faint ringing and a headache upon absorbing all fifty-seven minutes of the album, III
demands to be listened to time and time again; and Ad Nauseam’s obsessive attention to detail and audio fidelity makes this incredibly easy to do.
The impenetrability of III
derives not from its “heaviness”, its “brutality”, nor whatever redundant term is sure to crop up, but from its avoidance of familiar tonality or song structures, compounded by its technicality. Even the most virtuosic pieces from the likes of Spawn of Possession, First Fragment or Archspire are filled to the brim with ear-pleasing melodies, arpeggios and discernible progressions that make listening to them, at least in comparison to this, a breeze. Andrea’s drumming contains an array of the usual percussive metal techniques: blast beats, double bass and poly-rhythms, executed at a brisk tempo and with ample gusto. Though to reduce this performance down to the usual metal fare would be a major disservice, as delicate cymbal work, ghost notes and jazz-y syncopation on the snare litter just about every bar of III
at full-tilt. If anything, the drumming is Ad Nauseam’s guiding light, illuminating the path ahead as the guitar lines seem to writhe and slither.
Building upon the drumming as a foundation, guitarists Matteo G. and Andrea P. seem to enjoy a limitless amount of freedom in how they can play off one another, as well as in how they can twist and mutate whichever motif is being established. Acutely aware of the other’s activity at all times, Ad Nauseam’s axemen never pass up a chance to enrich the already potent chemistry, while Matteo B. makes a mockery of the expectation that his bass lines are to follow the rhythm guitar verbatim. No matter what discordant, tremolo-picked riffs, outlandish bends and jarring chords are being concocted, there is always something being presented as either a (dis)harmonic extension of them, or an impactful counterpoint.
This penchant for variation and polyphony was – according to the band themselves – informed by a number of 20th century classical composers, such as Xenakis, Scelsi, Ligeti and Penderecki. It’s a relief that this influence extends far beyond the simple inclusion of tortured strings as a kind of dressing, imbuing the core structures of each song in a way that feels neither antiquated nor prescriptive. The first two songs are more “metallic” in their arrangements, consisting of tangentially related riffs that can nevertheless be enjoyed to a near-full extent by themselves. It’s once we get to “Coincidentia Oppositorum”, the album’s centrepiece, that the weight of the band’s ambition is really felt, beginning with fragments of melody that herald the arrival of something grand. Following two hefty slabs of dissonant mayhem, something that isn’t quite an ear-worm emerging from the stumbling behemoth of a rhythm section feels like a triumph, while the rare moment of melodic resolve that follows is akin to a victory march. Such a protracted payoff makes great demands on the listener, I’ll admit, but said payoff is all the more satisfying when a sincere attempt to unearth III
’s minutiae is made.
Ad Nauseam shift approach one last time as III
’s third and final arc begins: as opposed to methodically building from the foundations up, they opt on “Horror Vacui” and “Human Interface to No God” to take ideas that are more-or-less complete and dismantle, then reconstruct them. In the process we are greeted with incomplete mosaics of musical phrases, in which some pieces are missing and others wind up in places they shouldn’t be. As the band hurriedly reassembles their work within the span of individual songs, the frenzies that ensue are perhaps the most engaging parts, though hearing the number of forms a theme or phrase can take is similarly engrossing. Perhaps this could be interpreted as a commentary on what it is to be a death metal band, given how far removed III
is from the roots of its genre? Well, maybe not.
Conjecture on the broader intentions of the band notwithstanding, once III
’s journey ends and the temptation to instantly resume sets in, the gap in time between this and Ad Nauseam’s debut makes more and more sense. There isn’t a whiff of creative stagnation here, nor any sign of a bottleneck in the production phase; the six year gulf was just a symptom of a tireless creative endeavour, matched by a degree of perfectionism that can only be understood upon hearing its results. Ad Nauseam’s efforts have bestowed upon us a monolith, eclipsing the bounds of extreme metal and meriting nothing less than the status of a classic.