You might think that there’s already an above-ample supply of bands paying proper homage to the noble age of less-thrashy death metal that crept to the surface in the late 80s, but the truth of the matter is that a sizable dose of those mimics don’t do the deed in a manner that’s engaging enough to warrant deep listens that stretch through the years. And really, that’s just one of a number of issues with the current state of the slower, less-technical end of death metal that happens to include one particularly glaring pitfall of late: Too much emphasis on atmosphere and not enough on punching a brick hammer through your face. I’ve got nothing against cavernous, cabalistic background noise for blood-letting and incense inhalation, but hitting play on a tune like “Severed Survival” from arguably the greatest death metal album of all time serves as a stark reminder of what so many of us still crave: Bone-pummeling savagery reinforced with superior songcrafting. That, my friends, is what makes a band like Vastum gut the competition.
Seems like that old adage should be a given for any band interested in playing this style, but too often these days the riff seems to exist simply as an obligation, not as a centerpiece. Luckily, everything about album number three from these pulverizers reaffirms and sanctifies heaviness by crushing the listener into mucilage right from the gate. The title track here alone could crack a mountain; its opening rumbles and bolt-throws as well as the masters of war themselves. And “In Sickness and in Death” might be the heaviest thing to hit this planet since that asteroid strike some 65 million years ago. Sayonara, Headbanglasaurus.
Of course, Vastum’s addiction to walloping ain’t exactly a news flash to those already familiar with their past work, particularly 2013’s lumbering Patricidal Lust, but Hole Below manages the heaviness with a much broader stroke. Each song flashes greater complexity, giving the record more depth and more hook than anything the band’s previously produced. Sporadic muted measures augmented with monotone chanting give a pleasantly creepy/ritualistic vibe to songs such as “Intrusion” and the title track, and “Amniosis” flashes a damn-near playful edge as it grinds to the marrow with a groove reminiscent of early Carcass pulled through molasses. Additionally, the loose, chaotic soloing that accented the previous effort gets a wider berth here, adding an invitingly melodic element that culminates to “Override of the Overture” levels with the fantastic closing number, “Empty Breast.”
Also worth mentioning is the fact that Daniel Butler and Leila Abdul-Rauf are essentially the bizarro Bog Beast versions of Sonny & Cher who live on a planet populated by swamp fiends who quaff nuclear waste like humans quaff PBR tall-cans. Leila’s raspier gnarl pairs beautifully with Daniel’s inhumanly glottal roar to give gruesome life to some of the more distressing lyrics you’ll hear in death metal today. As if a tune like “Intrusions” ain’t heavy enough, you will be murdered by the weight of Butler thundering “PUSHED PUSHED FURTHER” toward the song’s close. In all honesty, despite having seen these guys in person a few times, I remain unconvinced that the entire band is not actually made up of Shambling Mounds that spend their evenings eating rocks and hurling cars at one another.
There’s obviously room enough for all the ghouls, devils, cyborgs, ski-masked robbers, Yautjas or who/whatever the hell else is currently churning out death metal these days, but Vastum is the sort of band tailor-made for those who prefer to revisit the days when this style delivered a vile atmosphere by pummeling you into dust through the sheer weight of intense heaviness. It ain’t rocket science: If you like to get crushed, you need Hole Below. Heaviest album of the year by a deadly landslide.