Though Dutch death metal masters Asphyx remained active through the turn of the century, the band’s most celebrated work was done with vocalist and erstwhile bassist, Martin Van Drunen, who left the band in 1992. Van Drunen’s uniquely tortured vocals displayed on a quartet of classic Dutch death metal albums, two with Asphyx and two with Pestilence, have made him something of a death metal legend. Thus it was to the delight of many fans that, after a long period spent out of the metal spotlight, Van Drunen reunited with founding Asphyx drummer Bob Bagchus for a supposed one off festival show in 2007. By his own admission, Van Drunen was never much of a bass player, so the band wisely chose to retain the services of Pentacle bassist Wannes Gubbles, who fronted Asphyx on the criminally overlooked 2000 album, On the Wings of Inferno. Completing the lineup was Thanatos guitarist, Paul Baayens, who also serves in Van Drunen’s other band Hail of Bullets. The chemistry of this new lineup worked so well that one festival show turned into a handful and that handful of shows turned into a full-on re-activation of the band, the culmination of which is the new studio album entitled, oh so fittingly, Death… The Brutal Way.
Despite the seventeen year gap and line-up reshuffling, the Asphyx of 2009 sounds remarkably similar to the Asphyx of 1992. Death… The Brutal Way sounds very much like the successor to Last One on Earth. Van Drunen’s inimitable vocals certainly play a large part in recapturing the band’s classic sound, but an equal amount of credit must be given to Paul Baayens. I must admit I was initially skeptical of an Asphyx reunion that did not feature founding guitarist Eric Daniels. The prospect of such a reunion generated about as much excitement for me as a Jimi Hendrix Experience reunion without Jimi Hendrix. I am pleased to say that my skepticism has proven to be unfounded: On Death…The Brutal Way, Baayens sounds so much like Daniel’s that I suspect he might have sold his soul to the Devil in exchange for the secrets of Eric Daniel’s fretboard necromancy.
If anything can really be said to have changed about Asphyx’s sound, it is that it leans a little more heavily on the doom aspects, trading some of the brashness of youth for the commanding confidence of maturity. Tracks like “Cape Horn” and “Black Hole Storm” with their measured pacing, bristle with an imperious sense of power. Although the band sounds no less powerful on faster paced tracks like “Scorbutics” and “Eisenbahnmorser.” In truth every track on the album is a crusher (or should I say krusher?); Baayens locks in with Bagchus so well that it sounds like he is picking notes with a sledge hammer rather than a plectrum. This is a band on fire, playing like they mean it, indeed, playing Death… The Brutal Way.
The production on the album fits the band’s style perfectly. The sound is organic and muscular, but not overly polished making the songs sound massive, but uncluttered. Eric Daniels’ guitar tone on the first two Asphyx albums was terribly scooped, to the point where it sounded almost fizzy. Fortunately, in this one aspect Paul Baayens was less than faithful to the band’s original sound. Baayens retains the essential character of Daniels’ tone, but with considerably more clarity and punch.
That a band can, after such a long layoff, so perfectly replicate its classic sound while remaining so vital is almost inconceivable, but Asphyx has done it. Death… The Brutal Way is a true triumph (of death). It is more than just pretty good for a reunion album, or not bad for a bunch of old guys, it is a great death metal album period. Buy it.