Friends, I have gone on record as a doofus, and I do not intend to recant. Generally speaking, I am no great defender of musical orthodoxies: I like folk in my doom, ambient in my black metal, prog in my power metal, and weirdness everywhere. And yet, even as this mottled, ridiculous thing we call heavy metal rattles along in its fifth decade, I sometimes yearn for the bedrock. And more than any other genre of metal, it seems that death metal is the most satisfying when it revels in its origins.
Chile’s Atomic Aggressor formed in the mid-80s and kicked around the requisite underground demos before splitting in the early ’90s. Although they reformed in 2007, it’s only now, some 30 years after first forming, that their first full-length has been released. Thankfully, this long-delayed debut is a joyous effusion of outrageously satisfying death metal with no clear allegiance to any particular trend in the genre: there’s no Incantation worship, no tech-spasms, no lifeless modern production.
In short, this is death metal crafted with an appreciation for the purity of the form. But even more important than that is the fact that Atomic Aggressor wear none of the frequently tiresome emblems of self-consciously OLD-SCHOOL DEATH METAL death metal bands. Sights of Suffering doesn’t sound like it was fussed over endlessly in order to achieve a specific guitar tone or honed by market strategy-conscious ears, and thus it doesn’t invite any hand-wringing over whether it’s bald imitation or respectful homage.
Instead, Sights of Suffering is a glorious celebration of no-nonsense, regular-ass death metal. Since the band has been active on and off for several decades, these songs bear the marks of their long gestation: they are effortlessly fluid and confident, composed with lean yet flexible songwriting dynamics that include occasionally trippy solos, doomy sections, and mournful melodic passages. No sound is hidden, no player rounded off or blunted, and the drum fills sound like the drummer is falling down a flight of stairs at the end of each measure, which is exactly the sort of barely controlled chaos that made death metal’s early days so thrilling.
Perhaps it should be unsurprising, given how much the cover art of Sights of Suffering seems directly inspired by Altars of Madness, that Atomic Aggressor most often plays death metal in a style clearly descended from Altars/Covenant-era Morbid Angel. Sights of Suffering is also indebted to early Death and Autopsy (although who isn’t?), but occasionally in its more unhinged moments it brings to mind Krisiun, while recalling underrated Mexican death metallers Cenotaph in its more melancholy passages.
To Atomic Aggressor’s credit, though, not only do they not sound exactly like any one of these bands – they also don’t sound like they particularly CARE whom they may sound like. The focus throughout the 48 minutes of Sights of Suffering is squarely placed — blessed be — on chewy riffs, wild solos, loose but electric drumming, and up-yours-this-is-HEAVY grooves. (For proof of the latter, check the half-time legato groove-lead that levels your puny head halfway through “Unbodied Rites.”) The ridiculously good “Spawn of Doom” boasts huge Hell Awaits vibes (LOVE that Lombardo-inspired ride cymbal work), while the title track is a total stunner, with a squiggly, cosmic guitar solo that leads into a seriously menacing doom break, replete with tolling bell.
By the time the album winds to a close with the slow-down crunch of “I Beheld,” you might be thinking that you’re ready for some avant-garde crooning or off-genre instrumentation, but friends, this is a False Thought placed in your mind by some malign force trying to distract you from the ultimately simple pleasures of this steamrolling record. Put down your Frankfurt School primer, chuck your Neutral Milk Hotel records in a pile of hot garbage, give your cardigans to a charity that clothes ugly dogs, and get right with death metal.