In this business of writing words about sounds, some things are just easier to convey than others. If a band is slow and sounds like Black Sabbath, I can call it doom and there’s a good chance you understand what it means. If a band is slow and uses a lot of feedback and sounds like Black Sabbath if Tony Iommi couldn’t write a real riff to save his other nine fingertips, then I can call it sludge and there’s a good chance you understand what it means.
But death metal? Man, sometimes death metal is tricky. Case in point: this new album from Finland’s Ghastly is, without question, a death metal album. But because “death metal” can mean Possessed or Krisiun or Six Feet Under or Portal or Opeth or Wormed, it’s not all that helpful on its own. So here, friends, I must resort to an ugly, imprecise, loaded, and practically useless word: atmospheric. Yes, Ghastly’s sumptuous new album Death Velour is an atmospheric sort of death metal.
But the thing is, as ugly as the adjective is, it works for Ghastly. Death Velour’s production resonates with rich reverb, and while Ghastly’s compositional approach is sinister, melodic, and always lead-heavy, it rarely aims for all-out intensity. If you have been following the recent trend of weird atmosphere in nevertheless devoutly death metal bands such as Horrendous, Execration, Necrovation, Tribulation (pre-sad, shitty goth Tribulation, at least), Stench, Obliteration, Diskord, and particularly Morbus Chron, then Death Velour is squaring its shoulders directly to you. Death Velour is not quite as psychedelically inclined as Morbus Chron’s gorgeous swansong Sweven, but the two have a spiritual kinship. More to the point, though, the title of the first proper song here, “Death by Meditation,” is an almost frighteningly spot-on description for Ghastly’s musical approach on the whole. Everything in these seven songs is in service of the deviously catchy leads and riffs. They might be accented by trills here, by a doomy midsection there, by a satisfyingly clattery drum fill over here, but Ghastly’s entire sound circles around those melodic themes.
Although Ghastly’s two members are also bandmates in the relatively sedate yet oddball doom band Garden of Worm, the two projects share little else. In particular, vocalist Sami Harju is possessed of a deep, powerful bellow with significantly more personality in his delivery than your average fiddly (atmospheric or otherwise) death metal blargh-er. Every now and then, Ghastly’s leads sound a little like something Amorphis might have cooked up halfway between The Karelian Isthmus and Tales from the Thousand Lakes. But those same leads are often left to hang and dissolve in mid-air, which gives them a certain cobwebbed air that ties Ghastly back to a band like Occultation. Even when the drums kick up a hustle into an almost d-beat on “Whispers Through the Aether,” it seems like a way to get to some other destination, which in this case is an almost cackling vocal performance and a wild, flailing guitar solo, the latter of which has a weird, wispy reverb on it, giving the whole thing a spooky vibe not all that unlike a King Diamond instrumental interlude. (NB: this is never a bad thing.)
Second half highlight “Velvet Blue” opens with the sort of relaxed rhythmic bite that suggests thrash metal on some serious downers, but quickly colors its canvas with one of the album’s finest and eeriest harmonic guitar leads. Here and at many other points throughout the album, it’s easy to feel that while Ghastly doesn’t sound like Dissection, they sort of sound like they have the same relationship to death metal that Dissection had to black metal. If there’s a flaw to Death Velour, it’s that most of the songs blend together. However, because the purpose of each song seems to be mostly the perpetuation of the album’s ghoulishly seductive atmosphere, this is hardly a fatal flaw.
In the end, Death Velour’s charms are straightforward but captivating. The band brings the listener into a space of melodic aggression, but never tip the scales so far in favor of one or the other of those descriptors as to feel conflicted. The drums from the intro make a sneaky return in the lengthy outro of album closer “Scarlet Woman,” which suggests that even when the album has lulled you into a cozy sense of gossamer security, there’s a cannier intelligence than one might expect at work behind the scenes. Each song feels built up from a resonant core, from which all other elements are scaffolded as if automatically. The drums softly patter their way around the riffs, the bass widens the hum and pushes on the harder turns to see if they lead anywhere, and the vocals are haggard yet committed to a riddle whose answer is uttered in a strange language that you nevertheless understand.
Is that what atmospheric means? I don’t know; I told you it was a shitty word.