In 1991, I was 14 or so, another disposable teenager lost in the abundant wastes of suburban Middle(-class) America. Like countless others caught in the endless strip malls and high school football games, the Applebees and the ennui, I retreated into the fantastical worlds of music. Down that path lay the power, the soul, the dreams that I’d been lacking, of poets and devils, of dragons and kings, of anything and everything that wasn’t the Tennessee that enveloped me. For the first half of that decade, my hands were permanently attached to the scratched-up Sony Discman that filled my ears with merciful distraction, its duties only relieved when its volume was superseded by the soon-to-be blown-out stereo in my first hand-me-down car.
In those years, like almost everyone else, I discovered death metal. I wasn’t an early adopter, clearly, and I wasn’t even one-hundred-percent sold at first, I admit, only starting by dipping my toes in after fully digesting the glories of thrash. But there was something in this twisted rottenness that was too heavy to ignore, too good to overlook. I picked up Blessed Are The Sick, Cause Of Death, Clandestine… I listened; I learned; and I learned to love, and here I am.
As I write this, it’s just past the American Thanksgiving holiday in 2014 – it’s 23 years later. (Christ, am I that old? Damn. Yes, I guess I am.) But holidays are times for family, and home is where the heart is and all that crap, so home is where I went, where I stayed for a few days, and where, on that same scratched-up Sony Discman, I listened to Grand Morbid Funeral while I prepared this review.
And that was the perfect scenario for this record – for the time it took Bloodbath to rip through this record in my headphones, it was 1991 again. I was in the same house, but the guest room now, our den then, my teenage bedroom having long ago been converted into a workout room / storage dump. My parents had gone to sleep and I was left awake, the night-owl amidst early-birds, listening to his ugly music by his lonesome on the couch. Again.
And the music was ugly, is ugly. And it was loud. And damn, it was good.
Like most everyone else, I was surprised by the choice of Nick Holmes as the replacement for Mikael Akerfeldt for this, the fourth Bloodbath album. It’s not that Holmes’ pedigree was in doubt – I’ve been a Paradise Lost fan for decades, since those first days of the Discman, and I will forever hold that both that band’s pioneering death/doom and later-day gothic metal is undeniably great. It’s just that Old Nick hasn’t done a lot of growling in quite a long time, and I certainly didn’t see him as the voice of retro-Swedeath. My concerns were upheld by the pre-release teasers, which left me a bit unimpressed.
But now, I can’t really remember why I was worried, because even that track (“Church Of Vastitas,” which is still the album’s worst) sounds massive enough in the midst of the maelstrom.
From the opening of “Let The Stillborn Come To Me,” Grand Morbid Funeral is first-rate – virtually one rotting, snarling, carving death metal masterstroke after another. The trademark Swedish buzzsaw guitars; Renkse’s deep and cavernous bass; Martin Axenrot’s ferocious drumming, his intensity here inversely paralleling his main band’s shift towards prog-rock… It’s all here, everything that made Swedish death metal the grand morbid fun that it’s always been. The focus of concern since the announcement of his arrival, Nick Holmes proves without question why he’s here – his croaking growl is clearly intelligible, powerful and perfectly fetid for these tunes.
And what tunes they are: “Stillborn” itself is vicious, a perfect opener, while the twin sicknesses of “Anne” and later track “My Torturer” are as creepy in lyric as they are razor-sharp in attack. “Famine Of God’s Word” is one of the best death metal tunes of the year, and “Unite In Pain” is only a few steps behind. Finally, the title track closes the album in perfectly vile fashion, its splendid ugliness given extra depth (and death) through a guest appearance by Autopsy mainstay Chris Reifert. (Autopsy guitarist Eric Cutler also contributes solos to several tracks.) Even the doom-paced “Vastitas” is good, better here than on its own, as mentioned – it’s the moodiest moment on hand, but surrounded by giants, it offers less meat than the rest of these songs.
Simply put, Grand Morbid Funeral is a monster, an absolute beast of a retro-death record. Throughout the past decade, every trait of the “old school” has been rehashed and repackaged, and that goes doubly so for the Swedish side of things. Yet, Bloodbath has always stood above even the best of fellow imitators, releasing three records of consistently good quality, despite existing solely as the side project of giants. These are expert works because they’re the work of experts. And truly, when something is done this expertly, who really cares why?
There’s something rotten in Sweden, and perfectly so.