Stop. Take a moment. Ask yourself something. Are you interested in death metal? This is not a philosophical question. Do you enjoy the sound of thundering double-bass judders and overdriven treble-soaked riffage and angry-god roars? Or, at the very least, are you open to enjoying these things? If you’re not, that’s fine. Nobody will judge. But this week’s album is not for you.
Within the extreme metal world, the Denver death band Blood Incantation have been drawing rapturous reviews since before they released their debut album, 2016’s Starspawn. Before the LP was even out, Decibel named Hidden History Of The Human Race, the new Blood Incantation album, the best metal album of 2019. Within that underground world, Blood Incantation are fearless travelers, navigators of the astral plane. Blood Incantation take classic death metal sounds, and they push them way out into the cosmos, adding proggy time-signature tricks and expansive song-lengths and deep questions about the nature of humanity. Hidden History Of The Human Race has some of the best cover art in recent memory — a repurposed ’70s painting from stoner pulp god Bruce Pennington, stamped with an unreadable logo. The words “Pink Floyd” come up in just about every review.
Based on all of that, you’d think Blood Incantation might be positioning themselves as the death metal equivalents of Deafheaven — as fashion-conscious aesthetes ready to translate their deep-underground sound into something that audiences outside of their subcultural circles might be able to grasp. But Blood Incantation are not that. Hidden History Of The Human Race is an album with real moments of beauty and of disarming pretension. This is a four-song album that ends with an 18-minute track entitled “Awakening From the Dream Of Existence To The Multidimensional Nature Of Our Reality (Mirror Of The Soul).” But the death metal parts of this album are death metal. They are that real black-sweatpants-with-pentagrams-on-them shit. Most of the music on Hidden History Of The Human Race is harsh, ugly, guttural. You should be aware of this going in.
Death metal is a tough sell. This is by design. Black metal is a tough, sell, too, but black metal has mystery and atmosphere and grandeur working for it. (It also has facepaint and burnt churches and blood-flecked snow and mythic made-up names. Death metal just has bullet belts and dudes from Florida.) Doom has space and echo and primal connections to beloved rock overlords like Black Sabbath. Thrash has speed and gleeful absurdism and skateboards and generally excellent T-shirt design. Death metal, on the other hand, has cat-in-blender guitar solos and gargling-fire vocals. It is actively hostile to basic musical concepts like “melody” and “rhythm.” Its moment of greatest cultural impact is the Cannibal Corpse cameo in Ace Ventura: Pet Detective. Nobody is going to make death metal cool. Blood Incantation aren’t trying.
Instead, Blood Incantation take death metal as it is, and they blow out into something grand and mystical. They use the things that death metal has working for it — the cavernous echo-belches, the technical wizardry, the booming rush of the double-bass attack — and they use those things to sound as huge as possible. Blood Incantation spent years planning out Hidden History Of The Human Race — they had the cover art picked out before they’d even recorded Starspawn — and the album sounds galactically spaced-out while still bringing the ferocity that the genre demands.
Opening track “Slave Species Of The Gods” seems to begin in media res. Immediately, the band is already making a tremendous amount of noise: deep vocal growl, jackhammer blast-beat, tricky needle-riffage, screaming solo. Everything is recorded to blur into everything else. That opening works almost like a thrown gauntlet, a forbidding warning. Later on, the changes arrive slowly — the evil chiming acoustic guitars, the absurdly complicated jazz-level basslines, the almost-ambient sound-washes. But Blood Incantation don’t use those things to draw you in. They throw you right into the maelstrom instead.
Blood Incantation recorded Hidden History Of The Human Race on analog equipment, live to tape. Even when they’re doing breathtakingly complicated instrumental things, they always sound like actual human musicians playing in a room together. Each new choice — each change, each breakdown, each moment of heavy tranquility, each sudden lurch back into gear — is deliberate and rehearsed. They didn’t overdub ambient, heaving melodies later, and they didn’t rearrange all their complicated song structures in post-production. They got these songs into fighting shape long before they arrived in the studio.
As you can probably tell from this review, I have struggled with death metal over the years. I’ve tried. I’ve seen Morbid Angel. I’ve seen Behemoth. I’ve put in time as a stoned teenager, poring over the Heartwork lyric sheet and trying to figure out what “death engorged” meant. Shit ain’t for me. Historically, I’ve only really liked death metal when it’s been cut with triumphant melody (At The Gates) or Motörhead-esque knucklehead simplicity (Entombed). Blood Incantation don’t cut their death metal with anything. Really, their ominous quiet bits only make the louder parts uglier and more all-consuming. And yet I’m finding myself drawn to the immersive lava burn of Hidden History. It’s grand, sweeping, physical music. If you can let it overwhelm you, it will become something colossal and near-religious. You just have to let it happen.
Hidden History Of The Human Race is out 11/22 on Century Media/Dark Descent Records.
Other albums of note out this week:
• Coldplay’s double-album Everyday Life.
• Beck’s Pharrell-heavy synth-rumination album Hyperspace.
• The Who’s Who, their first album in 13 years.
• Leonard Cohen’s posthumous effort Thanks For The Dance.
• William Patrick Corgan’s solo double LP Cotillions.
• Hannah Diamond’s long-awaited PC Music bugout Reflections.
• Amy Klein’s booming, atmospheric Winter/Time.
• Upset’s tuneful, invigorating self-titled sophomore album.
• Omar Souleyman’s techno-influenced Shlon.
• Former Two Inch Astronaut member Mister Goblin’s solo debut Is Path Warm?
• Dev Hynes’ Queen & Slim score.
• Animal Collective’s live LP Ballet Slippers.
• The Hanukkah+ compilation.
• Chain Cult’s Shallow Grave EP.
• Caroline Says’ Ohio River EP.
• Doldrey’s Invocation Of Doom EP.