Thresholds Beyond: An Analysis of the Old-School Death Metal Revival

Photo: Kieran Gallop

Coined by the theorist Bifo Berardi, the phrase “slow cancellation of the future” refers to the inertia of postmodern existence, specifically a stasis of cultural progression that has resulted in the concept of ‘newness’ no longer being the primary driving force of artistic creation. Characterised by revivalism and nostalgia, examples of this stasis in the musical landscape include the post-punk revival acts of the early 00’s (​Interpol​, ​Franz Ferdinand​), the post-post-punk acts of today (​Idles​, ​Fontaines D.C.​), the motown simulacrum of ​Amy Winehouse​, the retro producer extraordinaries ​Mark Ronson​ and ​Jack White​, and the time-jumping pop of ​Dua Lipa​’s ​Future Nostalgia​.

These aren’t just small corners of the cultural landscape, these are major mainstream artists utilising this retro mode of creation. This new reality has become so all-encompassing that it’s easy to forget that not so long ago it wasn’t the norm. Culture once followed a healthy upwards curve, with new styles cropping up every few years (think about how many new music genres emerged between just 1982 and 1992). However, since then time has gotten distinctly muddled, with styles and genres from all eras becoming as equally dominant, sometimes even more so, than any newer creations that have arisen. Writers like Berardi, Mark Fisher and Frederic Jameson attribute this jumbling up of cultural time to the emergence of late capitalism, a behemoth now so large and all-consuming that it has started devouring its own past, like an ouroboros snake eating its tail.

Given that the retro mode is so dominant in our culture, it was inevitable that it would reach extreme metal, hence why we now have the much discussed old-school death metal revival. A whole swathe of bands including, but certainly not limited to; Gatecreeper​, ​Tomb Mold​, ​Necrot​, ​Fuming Mouth​, ​Witch Vomit​, ​Horrendous​, Genocide Pact​, ​Frozen Soul​, ​Outer Heaven​ and ​Undeath ​have all released works in the last few years tagged as a part of this movement, characterised by a formal simplicity meant to harken back to the early days of the genre. A key trait of their approach is the use of a muddy and unpolished style, with cavernous vocals, spacious drums and a buzzsaw guitar tone all being near ubiquitous signifiers. These are then combined with a gory aesthetic and linear, riff-driven songcraft to create works that intentionally call to mind a halcyon form of death metal.

So how did we reach this point? Death metal lasted remarkably long before any sort of pronounced revival took place, given that we have seen similar things happen to thrash (spearheaded by the similarly old-school ​Power Trip​) and a resurgence in traditional metal from the likes of ​Spirit Adrift​, ​Eternal Champion​ and ​Crypt Sermon​. One answer would be to imagine the OSDM revival as a rebuttal to the last two decades of death metal. Primarily characterised by the emergence of brutal death metal, slam and the much-maligned deathcore, the 21st-century saw the genre move beyond its roots and bloom into something very different to its original conception. The shredding got turned up to eleven, the compositions louder and more frantic, and in the case of deathcore; the breakdowns more prominent. In the popular metal consciousness, death metal had lost its dedication to riff-driven, groovy joy, instead becoming a quest to be the most relentless and meat-headedly cacophonous.

So a revival began. It’s hard to pinpoint exactly when, there’s a staggering amount of death metal released every year, however when ​Tomb Mold​’s ​Planetary Clairvoyance​ received an 8.0 score and ‘best new music’ tag from tastemakers Pitchfork (who cover limited amounts of metal), you wondered if the band was about to have its ​Sunbather​ moment. While ​Tomb Mold​ haven’t quite crossed over like ​Deafheaven​ did, it feels as though this was the moment, not so much when the revival started, but the moment where it became a ‘thing’, because the movement had now received notice from a major publication.

Tomb Mold​’s two albums are key texts in this pantheon, along other releases such as the desert-scorched one-two punch of ​Gatecreeper​’s ​Sonoran Deprivation​ and Deserted​, the feral intensity of ​Of Feather And Bone​’s ​Sulphuric Disintegration​, the ​Death​-worshipping technicality of ​Horrendous​’ ​Idol​ and​ Fuming Mouth​’s hardcore-inspired​The Grand Descent.​ These are just select examples, there’s a ton of this stuff out there, all of varying levels of quality. Certain works are of more interest, not so much for how they differ from the pack, but more the specific ways in which they operate. Then there are others that are the worst sort of retro bores, empty vessels stealing from the past without crafting anything new.

Genocide Pact​ are particularly toothless, ​Witch Vomit​ offer little besides an excellent name, while​ Exhumed​ are generic Carcass​-worshipers with a reliance on 80’s horror aesthetics. These groups are the bottom of the revival pile, offering nothing besides empty aesthetics and not even doing those particularly well. To be clear, none of these bands have produced work that is terrible, or at all offensive, they are just oddly bland and dull for a genre that has rarely been described as such.

An issue with retro revivalism is that by simply regurgitating a previously created aesthetic, there’s no ‘standing on the shoulders of giants’ in order to carve out a new future, nothing gets created, it exists in a purely solipsistic realm; reassuring the listener of what they already know without opening up any new frontiers. The argument that will be used to defend the OSDM revival is that this form of back-peddling takes the genre back to its roots, reminding us of what death metal can do when stripped-down and done simply but properly. Well that’s fine to a point, however it is starting to become the dominant trend in the genre, and that is an issue. If the genre’s scales tilt too far the other way into nostalgic retro-worship, then it will inevitably suffer as a whole.

But there are acts that display something a little different, ones that manage to take on qualities of the hauntological kind. Coined by philosopher Jaques Derrida, this term, a pun on ontology, asks what if we can understand the present through how it had been envisioned by the past. The finer acts of the OSDM revival create works of this ilk, in that they seem to exist outside of conventional cultural time, using our knowledge of OSDM to create an idealised image of the genre, a form of revival that is not strictly identical yet simultaneously wholly familiar. They resemble the uncanny electronica of ​The Caretaker​ or ​Boards Of Canada​, who craft haunted images of recognisable yet off-kilter histories.

Mark Fisher’s analysis of the music of ​The Caretaker​ and ​Burial​ focused on how the artificial vinyl crackle that overlaid their music became a melancholic evocation of fractured memories. In a similar sense, the echoing gutturals of ​Of Feather And Bone​’s ​Sulphuric Disintegration​ or the booming snare of ​Spectral Voice​’s doom-inflected​ Eroded Corridors Of Unbeing ​cast us into a cavernous netherworld of memory, a place out of time similar to the haunted ballrooms of ​The Caretaker​’s ouveur. They take us somewhere beyond, to an idealised retro-utopia of death metal fantasy.

What these acts possess is something not just hauntological, but also, more simply; haunted. There’s a doomy, genuinely miserable quality that the empty groove of Genocide Pact​ or ​Exhumed ​cannot capture. There’s a real lack of friendliness, a spikiness and rough edge to ​Of Feather And Bone​ and ​Spectral Voice​, as well as the savage ​Pissgrave​ and ​Caustic Wound​ that, while not wholly original, does mean they stand separate from the other revival acts whose work is often too smooth, predictable and eager to please. It’s worth mentioning that many of the death metal founders were genuinely dangerous;​ Deicide​ were in way too deep with Satanism and members of ​Morbid Angel​ slashed themselves on stage and crucified mice. These guys were truly crazy, and that helped create this sound. Of course you shouldn’t try to emulate any of this behaviour, but stealing an aesthetic created out of that mindset rings strangely hollow.

So we’ve seen two sides of OSDM revival. There’s interesting ideas in there, however both are fundamentally flawed. Fortunately, there’s other strands of contemporary death metal out there that are a lot more progressive and future-minded. Last year saw one of the finest extreme metal releases in years; Ulcerate​’s​ Stare Into Death And Be Still.​ Nominally a death metal album, its head-spinning technicality and sheer formidability granted it a genuinely cosmic quality, listening to it was like staring into the maw of a Lovecraftian Elder God. This spacey brand of death metal could also be found in the elegant and beautiful Collateral Dimension​ by Italy’s ​Coexistence​, as well as the psychedelic nightmare of ​Bedsore​’s ​Hypnagogic Hallucinations​. Then there was the terrifying, ornate and overwhelming assault of ​Imperial Triumphant’​s ​Alphaville​, along with the frantic, grind and math-influenced ​Abscess Time​ by ​Pyrrhon​. These bands are shifting the genre into strange and bold new shapes, ones more colourful, surprising and engrossing than that of the OSDM revivalists.

The link that fuses these two contemporary modes of the genre together is the acclaimed ​Blood Incantation​. Their 2019 work ​Hidden History Of The Human​ ​Race was a brilliant fusion of the old school and progressive, taking influence from all corners of the genre, from ​Death​ to Gorguts​ to ​Demilich​. Though often tagged as part of the OSDM revival, there’s so much more to them than just that. Not content with crafting muddy, groove-based neck-snappers, they’ve injected technicality, ambition and wonder back into the genre, all the while being aware of the lineage they exist within. Their form of death metal is both accessible and progressive, and deserves the utmost plaudits.

So where does this leave the OSDM revival? It’s certainly showing no signs of slowing down any time soon, every week we’re seeing multiple new releases and big name labels in the scene are signing up the bands. But the cracks will eventually slow, the snake cannot keep devouring its tail forever. Fortunately, death metal has an alternative, unlike many other genres in the cultural sphere. It’s out there waiting, with both eyes set on the stars rather than on the tangled web of our cultural history.


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