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  1. Thanatopsis
    United States (San Marcos, Texas)


    View attachment 3950
    Horror Pain Gore Death Productions, 2010


    As a genre is first "born" out of protoplasmic soup of another it has a tendency to begin to branch off into a wide variety of directions all linked together by a stronger over-arching idea. In death metal this resulted in not only a deluge of sub-genres and regional approaches but also varied compositional one that when combined, left the listener with something that might seem aesthetically "similar" yet beneath said surface meant a far more varied animal. However, these can have their downsides and the controversial genre of "melodic death metal" was perhaps the worst victim. Starting out as both a predecessor to the 90's black metal to come and a re-uniting of usually-Scandinavian death metal with ideas from bands such as Iron Maiden and Judas Priest, many of its progenitors and innumerable newcomers quickly watered it down into a poorly done rehash of the traditional, power, and thrash metal that preceded it. Fortunately, this up and coming Texan band attempt to re-capture this approach's former glory, side-stepping the influence of sell-out works such as Heartwork and Slaughter of the Soul upon a stillborn genre.

    In Vex's music we find a varied heritage - Dissection, Iron Maiden, Metallica, folk and progressive rock. Organized into long and graceful streams of melody, Thanatopsis encapsulate whole generation's worth of metal's melodic sensibility into a single distinctive voice all of their own. Songs do not rely as much upon lower-register precision rhythm playing as most American (styled) death metal, opting for a noticeable emphasis on lead-rhythm riffs. While they may feel rather light and airy, they still retain their drive through their unrelenting usually tremolo-powered surging, resulting in a highly streamlined listen. To avoid becoming simply passing the user by with no sense of contrasting conflict however, Vex carefully use various techniques such as thrash-style palm mutes, spacious dirge-like ("doom") riffs and acoustic segments to moderate a song's development, keeping these displays light in relation to the song as a whole, thus avoiding merely becoming a showboating of personal influences.

    Songs are structured in a somewhat narrative manner, building their sense of the dramatic and the intense through melody in a way similar to bands such as Maleficarum (Ita) and earlier At The Gates. They often begin with simple riffs but through their powerful sense of motion, these are enhanced through layers of textural elaboration. Through stacking these progressively strengthening melodies upon one another a linear if powerful sense of both atmosphere and direction arises, also holistic in its ability to capture and continue the same sense of force whether it be through death/black style lead rhythm or delicately picked traditional metal guitar flourish. Although it does not have the same multi-directional orchestration of masterpieces such as The Red in the Sky is Ours or Cenotaph's Sailing Our Black Oceans, its powerful sense of focus and concise songwriting give it a comparable feel of the hallowed and a gravitas in a more straight-ahead manner.

    The guitar work is eloquent as the best of NWOBHM and its numerous direct descendants but interprets and integrates these lessons into rigid, militant expressions of death/black riffing strength. Bass follows behind subtly, lacing subtly enriching low-register commentary throughout songs like a librarian carefully re-archiving a precious collection. Drumming follows along doggedly, stripped down to free up space for melodic development, deftly breaking its sometimes blasting rhythms with certain cymbal/tom hits at times for a bit of additional punch. Vocals are a harsh black metal howl, occupying the mid-high registers and carefully matching the levels of intensity surrounding it in both scream duration and precise enunciation.

    Reaching far back to the obscured roots of the genre, Vex use elongated melodies and careful usage of technique to both re-captures the lost spirit of "melodic death metal" and help to find the beleaguered subgenre a new voice. Thanatopsis closes the divide between classic extreme metal and the melodic metal forms it separated from, side-stepping the legions of failed NWOBHM and late 80's thrash cover bands with harsh vocals "melodeath" is mostly composed of. While some may find its lack of lower-end crush and rather linear songwriting to be off-putting, those able to appreciate this forgotten approach to death metal will discover a diamond in the rough that captures the promise of a style that never really was. Although they still have a fair share of distance to cover before the full potential of their capability can be realized, this debut will join the works of acts such as Miscreant (Swe), The Chasm, and Eucharist (Swe) as great examples of death metal's lesser known nature.

    Score: 93/100

    One of 2010's finest.
  2. Under The Black Cross
    Iron Pegasus Records
    Netherlands (Bladel, North Brabant)

    The "new old school" of death metal has predominantly been focused on two general sounds. The first of these is the post-Dismember/Entombed style of hardcore punk style rhythms combined with a metallic eye towards lengthy and intricate tremolo melodies. The second of these harkens towards ideas from the more occult side of New York extreme metal (Profanatica and Incantation), using sudden and abrupt often blast beat guided motions to regulate and vary a theatre of violently converging themes. From the Netherlands comes a band that pre-dates these two, going back to the year 1990, playing in a style that looks back to the early American rigidly pounding approach of bands such as Massacre and Leprosy-era Death but gives it a European tinge in its melodic sensibilities that reminds of classic Asphyx. These are best used only as general references however as they manage to the previously mentioned groups.

    As with many bands that attempt to re-create the same classic feel and excellence of the late 80's/early 90's death metal explosion, the music here is of a low-tech and mostly un-advanced execution but unlike the pop-metal and "core" sounds of the new millennium this is not so much an artistic deficiency as much as it is a general attribute. Pentacle's compositional style is based upon a sense of contrast between jagged Hellhammer/Celtic Frost style crunching rhythm riffs and longer melodies, often tremolo picked, that recall Asphyx's "The Rack" although occasionally a slight Swedish death metal influence creeps in with their length and streamlining. Songs utilize the polarizing clash between the two in a way that evolves like an escalating conflict. Within each of these battles, a sub-theme will often break through the lines to start a small foray, one that hints at a future directional change. While the core idea remains the same as the song progresses, it reincarnates itself through the preceded theme usually with modified technique, before following finally following a bridge that leads it back to the song's originating riff.

    A thick and somewhat dry production allows for a fair share of angry buzz, allowing all instruments to be heard fairly well while allowing for a fair share of rawness. A desolate open throated bark commands the instrumentation like some microphone-armed drill sergeant, sounding similar to the legendary Martin Van Drunen of Asphyx and Pestilence although not quite as powerful. Guitar is well acquainted with the cult heroes of underground extreme metal but pronounces its knowledge with a militant sense of order and precision, never becoming technical as much as it is strictly cadenced. Bass and drums bash alongside faithfully but throw in bits of simple flair at certain intervals to spice up the execution a bit.

    Although Pentacle do not break any new ground with this album, they are able to create a voice of their own and successfully build upon the earlier foundations of the genre. At times they occasionally sound somewhat limited by some instances of noticeable repetition and in their compositional ability. However, these shortcomings fortunately do not cripple or tarnish their artistic vision, with songwriting remaining clear, concise, and obviously guided by very experienced musicians. They are able to transcend perceives problems of aesthetic limiting the content (often made by those confusing the former for the latter) and have delivered a work that captures the same standard of quality of those that have influenced them.