If you’ve had an ear directed towards the underground over the last few years, you know that more than any metal subsector, the death variety is on a tear. Seemingly every month there’s a new record calling back to the classics while offering new personality, if not exactly new ideas. Sure, there are some truly innovative bands moving things forward by bringing in more noise, jazz, psychedelia, and progressive rock, but for the most part the sounds are very much rooted in the classics.
Some are the typical Cannibal Corpse, Vader, and Immolation clones you’d gleefully expect, while others employ the madballery of Demilich and bottom-feeding girth of the early Finnish sound or the grime, filth, and molten molasses of Incantation. When the albums have been as well written and performed as they often have been of late, this is all extremely welcome.
But with all of the what’s-old-is-new-again greatness happening, one of the greatest eras of not just death metal but all metal seems a little ignored among the newest waves–that being the explosion of technical and progressive elements into the style in the late 80s and early 90s. The ascensions of Death, Atheist, Pestilence, and several other brilliant bands found a mix of virtuosity, undeniable class (musically, at least), brashness, and brutality that really no other era of metal has ever equaled. (If you’re going to yell back that the modern era of shimmery tech-death comes anywhere close to this, well, I’d like to sell you a Borg Cube timeshare.)
The reason that few bands try to emulate this exact era is pretty obvious: it’s hard. For all of the cocky soloing and technical wizardry, this was by and large tasteful music that maintained both great songwriting and a hugely adventurous spirit (there’s a reason we affectionately call the era “Becoming Progressive Death Metal” during staff meetings). It also typically oozed personality, and personality, as it is said, goes a long way.
Like their most obvious heroes, the deeper side of Horrendous was there from the beginning, but it wasn’t yet the dominant trait; The Chills had far more in common with Dismember than it did with Death, and Ecdysis amped up the exploration but was still mostly indebted to its sources. It was 2015’s beastly Anareta that finally revealed the breadth of their vision and showed how much they worship at the altars of Schuldiner, Shaefer, and Masvidal. The record was punchy, atmospheric, oozing with brash charisma, melodic-yet-violent, and always focused on the end goal. But true to those roots, it was still a little grimy and greasy.
What hasn’t changed here is their basic knack for slick riffs and smart songs. The influences mentioned above are the obvious sources (plus a blink-and-you’ll-miss-it touch of Peace Sells-era Megadeth in “Devotion (Blood for Ink)”), but with each album Horrendous forms more of their own voice, and Idol takes yet another step in this direction. It’s evident right off the bat that the band’s original three dudes – guitarist/vocalists Damian Herring and Matt Knox and drummer Jamie Knox – only continue to build chemistry, and the addition of bassist Alex Kulick works wonders. From the intro on, Kulick dances around the more rigid lines of his 6-string bandmates, adding plenty of countermelody at certain times, a bubbly bounce at others (the latter really amplifies the a proggier passage of “The Idolator”), or simply filling the space while the guitars hold out some moment of suspense.
At times, the rest of the band shares this newfound freeness. The soloing is top notch throughout, and sometimes, as during a less aggressive section of “Golgothan Tongues,” both guitarists intertwine leads while Kulick provides responses. It’s the kind of lush interplay that wouldn’t work with a less cohesive unit, and it permeates every second of Idol. At other times, however, those solos take center stage, flying out of whatever glorious setup the song gives them and soaring to the next destination. (It really can’t be overstated: The leads on this record are spectacular.)
This sort of freeness and occasional improvisation isn’t even the biggest sign of maturity. Horrendous’ most striking trait is their ability to make each song feel like a complete journey. It’s rather amazing how much… distance is packed within each tune, which creates both anticipation and a pretty big replay urge. “Divine Anhedonia” is one of the best examples, emerging out of an “Atheist is warming up” vibe to explode into speed, get twitchy-blasty, arrive at the most neck-wrecking riffs on the record, and even offer some real singing before finding an abrupt ending. It’s an Opeth level of content in a song that is barely five minutes long. Slightly more Opeth in length is closer “Obulus,” which hints at the album climax early on but then deviates into a passage of extended soloing or some new version of a previous motif. It’s a striking bit of scene building and deconstruction that might not arrive at the destination you expected, and closes the record with an eerie tension.
Now… for the vocals, which have long been the great double-edged sword of the Horrendous sound. Both Herring and Knox have an incredibly throaty, gruff approach that sounds… quite painful to perform (like a parched Martin van Drunen being sliced by razors). On one hand, one of the two men is obviously better at vocal performance (apologies for not knowing which is which on record), and the difference can sometimes be a mite distracting. On the other, both should be praised for trying to inject the vocals with any expression whatsoever. So many of the current crop of throwback death metal bands treat vocals as an afterthought, just growling with zero rhythm underneath the maelstrom. By contrast, Horrendous shows how much punch can be added simply by trying to do something more with the voices (personality, eh?), even if certain vocal passages remain the one possible area for improvement.
Everything else about this band is firing on all cylinders, and each new album shows them discovering new cylinders. This, more than riff styles or melodic tendencies or song construction or technical ability is what makes Horrendous so comparable to the Deaths and Atheists of yesteryear. While it is still fairly easy to hear the musical sides of these influences, Horrendous obviously also values those bands’ restless exploration. They’re never going to duplicate their heroes’ level of innovation (duh), but that isn’t the point. The point is merely staying hellbent on carving their own path. As long as Horrendous keeps delivering albums as infinitely listenable and engrossing as Idol, it’s going to be really great watching them wield that machete.