Originally written by Doug Moore.
Cryptopsy. I’m willing to bet this is a name you’ve all heard. If a genre as deliberately obscurist and inaccessible as technical death metal can have a public face, this Canadian blastbeat institution is as close as it comes. The onetime kings of the infamous Montreal tech-metal scene, Cryptopsy have left their mark on all manner of recent success stories. Upstarts from Neuraxis to the devastating Ion Dissonance owe at least some measure of their success to Flo Mounier and company. While Cryptopsy certainly wasn’t the first band to wow with overwhelming speed and musical proficiency, they have in the past managed to do so whilst retaining enough memorable structures and riffs to build up a gigantic fanbase. Along the way they’ve certainly stirred up their fair share of controversy; from the departure of fan-favorite vocalist Lord Worm to the build in complexity from None So Vile to …And Then You’ll Beg, the Cryptopsy catalogue has been plenty varied enough to ensure constant dissent regarding which of their albums is best. Now, a full five years after their previous effort, the prodigal sons have returned, original vocalist in tow. And what has half a decade’s time allowed these infamously left-of-center musicians to generate? Unfortunately, a lot less than you’d thinky. Once Was Not is chock-full of brain-cramping riffs and absurd, over-the-top blasting, but some questionable decisions and a lack of progression render it a merely adequate addition to Cryptopsy’s infamous catalogue.
It’s not a good sign when you pop in a new album and the first thing you notice is the production job. Once Was Not is noticeably—jarringly, even—more raw than …And Then You’ll Beg or Whisper Supremacy; in fact, even None So Vile sounds slightly more polished. The guitars, while clear, lack the thick bottom end of earlier Cryptopsy or the crispness of their more recent work, and Mounier’s scattershot rhythms are placed far in the front of the mix, occasionally dwarfing the rest of the band. It’s not a terrible mix, to be sure, and every instrument is clear and audible. Problem is, it sounds incredibly underpowered in the context of the band’s back catalogue. Sure, you can hear everything reasonably well, but Cryptopsy has as many resources available to them as any band in death metal today; why go with such a lackluster production? Beats me, and I doubt I’m alone in my confusion.
Those who have any familiarity with Cryptopsy’s history are well aware of the band’s revolving-door vocal slot, and on Once Was Not it seems that the position has come around full-circle. Lord Worm makes his return, and as someone who never really understood the man’s cult following, I feel a little vindicated by his performance here. Worm is absolutely the weak link in Cryptopsy’s musical chain; quirky but somewhat indistinct on earlier albums, he is clearly well past his prime at this juncture. His once-formidable lower register seems to have entirely replaced with a middling sort of half-roar that would sound more at home on a melodeath album, and while his piercing highs have endured, they are noticeably less forceful than they once were. Though Lord Worm devotees will unquestionably love his work anyway, more analytical listeners will find his diminished voice unsatisfying.
And the songs themselves? Well, they’re pretty good, and from time to time they can be excellent. Opener “In The Kingdom Where Everything Dies…” is full of vintage ‘Topsy riffing and frantic Mounier blasts, while “Carrionshine” displays brand-new guitarist Alex Auburn’s capacity for wacky leads and grinding harmonic-laden musings. Some of Once Was Not’s best moments come when Cryptopsy reign in the sidewinding structures and produce some solid, recognizable melody; “The Frantic Pace of Dying” and brawny closer “Endless Cemetary” feature baroque riffs that recall the best moments of Whisper Supremacy. Virtually every song on this album contains at least a few high-quality moments, be they devastating chugga sections or virtuosic speed exhibitions, and it’s hard to come away from a listen without at least some respect for the band’s talent.
The issue with the songs themselves is not quality so much as freshness. While Once Was Not serves as an excellent summation of Cryptopsy’s previous works, that’s all it really is; the band doesn’t do a lot here that they’ve never done before. While this isn’t necessarily a sin in and of itself, Cryptopsy is a band that has built their reputation on progression and standard-setting, and it’s hard to swallow any less. In a genre as viciously competitive as technical death, anything less than peak performance is likely to fall by the wayside. Though Once Was Not is a solid album and the Cryptopsy name ensures that it will receive plenty of attention, the band is at risk of being outstripped by their peers. Though I’d hardly say that Cryptopsy are completely over the hill or creatively spent, Once Was Not isn’t the sort of album that legendary bands produce. An acceptable effort for older fans, but neophytes should track down their three previous albums before buying this one.